Seventy percent of U.S. active duty service members have received their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, the Pentagon announced on Friday, and 62 percent of the force is now fully vaccinated.
The latest numbers come despite initial skepticism from a broad swath of the military toward the shot. In February, members of the top brass testified before Congress that roughly one-third of troops had declined to get vaccinated.
Such hesitancy among America’s armed forces prompted a group of Democratic lawmakers in March to demand President Joe Biden make the vaccine a requirement for all service members. At the time, the Pentagon’s top spokesperson confirmed that option was under consideration by military leaders.
In April, Biden declined to rule out a mandatory vaccination order for U.S. troops in an interview, describing the decision as a “tough call.” The commander in chief said he would “leave that to the military,” but added: “I’m not saying I won’t. I think you’re going to see more and more of them getting it.”
The issue has also emerged as a point of debate among Republican lawmakers, following a recent report that the Army directed commanders to prepare to administer mandatory Covid-19 vaccines as early as Sept. 1 — pending full licensure of the shots by the Food and Drug Administration.
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), a conservative congressman who has introduced a bill that would ban a potential coronavirus vaccine requirement for service members, tweeted earlier this month that he had been “contacted by members of our voluntary military who say they will quit if the COVID vaccine is mandated.”
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a more moderate House Republican and a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard, rebuked Massie’s message.
“So much wrong with this tweet even beyond how naive it is,” Kinzinger tweeted. “1) sorry, but you can’t quit the military. 2) there are about 3890 mandatory vaccines in the military already, 3) you knew this when you joined. 4) THE VACCINE WORKS. Good luck with your pandering though.”
In a video statement on Friday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin implored service members to get vaccinated and said the military’s health care professionals were administering the shots “as fast as we receive them.”
“All the available vaccines have been authorized by the Food and Drug Administration for a simple reason: They are safe, and they are effective,” Austin said. “I got my shots, and I hope you will too.”
The Navy remains the branch of the military with the greatest proportion of its force vaccinated. The Defense Health Agency announced last month that 77 percent of active-duty sailors had received at least one shot.
That same data showed vaccination rates of 70 percent in the Army, 61 percent in the Air Force and 58 percent in the Marine Corps. As of Wednesday, the Pentagon had administered roughly 4.4 million shots — with more than 226,000 service members partially vaccinated and more than 988,000 fully vaccinated.