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Biden directs Pentagon to plan for mandatory COVID-19 vaccines

President Joe Biden speaks about COVID-19 vaccine requirements for federal workers in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, July 29, 2021.  (Susan Walsh)

President Joe Biden on Thursday said he was taking the first step toward making the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for members of the military .

“Since many vaccinations are required for active-duty military today, I’m asking the Defense Department to look into how and when they will add COVID-19 to the list of vaccinations our armed forces must get,” Biden said in an address from the White House.

Service members already are required to get as many as 17 vaccines, depending on where they are based around the world. They include inoculations against measles, mumps, diphtheria, hepatitis, smallpox and the flu.

In a rebuke of Biden’s announcement, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers called any effort to mandate a vaccine an overreach by the White House. A spokesman confirmed that her criticism included mandatory COVID-19 vaccines for members of the military.

“Vaccine mandates will not build trust in the vaccine, and neither will the CDC’s mask mandate based on secret, unpublished, and questionable data,” McMorris Rodgers, who represents Eastern Washington in Congress, said in a statement. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance that recommended mask-wearing for vaccinated people in areas of high transmission earlier this week, but it is local governments that have issued mandates based on that recommendation.

Biden said mandatory vaccinations would be essential in protecting military members. The Pentagon said earlier this month decisions about a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine would likely follow any full approval of the vaccine by the Food and Drug Administration. Vaccines currently available have received emergency use authorization from the agency.

“Our men and women in uniform, who protect this country from grave threats, must be protected as much as possible from getting COVID-19,” Biden continued. “I think this is particularly important because our troops serve in places throughout the world. Many where vaccination rates are low and disease is prevalent.”

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray said in a statement that vaccination was necessary to ensure safety.

“First and foremost, the best way to stay safe from COVID is to get vaccinated – this is about protecting yourself, your family, your neighbors, and your community,” Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement. “As that work continues, we need to listen to public health experts about what steps will help us most quickly and effectively end this pandemic and save lives, and in this case what will keep our servicemembers and the communities they serve healthy and safe. This is a readiness issue, and part of being ready is being healthy.”

Biden announced the directive along with other measures intended to encourage federal workers to get vaccinated. He also announced compensation for businesses that give employees time off to receive vaccinations or to get loved ones vaccinated.

McMorris Rodgers anticipated any move to force people to receive vaccines would backfire.

“All these actions only create a dangerous level of resentment toward a government that is acting like an authoritarian regime seizing more command and control in our lives and health care decisions,” McMorris Rodgers said, adding that a vaccination decision should be made by an individual in consultation with their doctor.

Biden has directed his team to take steps to apply similar requirements to all federal contractors, such as those working on clean-up at the Hanford nuclear site.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.