‘Readiness Issue’: Pentagon Press Secretary Skirts Question On Vaccine Mandate After Biden Declared Pandemic ‘Over’

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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The Pentagon’s chief spokesperson said he had no “specific comments” to make about the department’s decision to continue enforcing the vaccination mandate at a briefing Thursday afternoon.

President Joe Biden said the COVID-19 pandemic, which inspired nationwide lockdowns and months of heated debate over vaccination rules, was “over” in an interview with CBS 60 minutes Sunday. However, the Department of Defense (DOD) continues to require full vaccination among troops amid a growing recruitment crisis and calls from Congress to end the mandate.

“Broadly speaking … the DOD still requires that military members be vaccinated,” Pentagon press secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters Thursday. “As we’ve said before, this is a readiness issue, it’s a warfighting issue.”

Members of Congress expressed “grave concern” about how the mandate would adversely affect the military’s ability to meet today’s challenges in a Sept. 15 letter sent to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

“I don’t have any specific comments to make in terms of congressional requests,” Ryder said. He likened the COVID-19 vaccine to other vaccines troops are required to receive when deployed to various locations around the world.

The Army released its latest COVID-19 vaccination statistics Friday, noting a 97% two-dose vaccination rate among active duty troops and close to 90% among Army National Guard and reserve personnel. That means roughly 15,000 active soldiers, 19,000 reservists and over 33,000 National Guard troops remain unvaccinated.

The Army cut its total force size down by at least 12,000 troops for the 2023 fiscal year, which begins in October.

“We clearly see your vaccine mandate as the primary cause of the Department’s recruiting difficulties,” the forty-seven lawmakers wrote. If the Army separates 67,000 soldiers who remain in limbo awaiting exemptions or discharge, “it begs the question whether the Army will be able to replace them,” they said.

The Army has faced the worst of a DOD-wide recruitment crisis, but each military branch has struggled to meet end strength goals for 2022.

Austin announced new policies Thursday aimed at easing the effects of inflation for military families, measures that could make service more attractive for new recruits who fall on the lower end of the DOD payscale. These include a “basic needs allowance” for servicemembers whose gross household incomes fall below 130% of the national poverty level.

“As a major land war rages in Europe, our own military faces a self-imposed readiness crisis,” the lawmakers said. “Off the bat, your vaccine mandate disqualifies more than forty percent of the Army’s target demographic from service nationwide, and over half of the individuals in the most fertile recruiting grounds.”

Vaccine requirements for employees of Defense Department agencies and federal contractors have been indefinitely suspended, though not removed, according to the latest update to federal guidance.

The Department of Health and Human Services backtracked on Biden’s statement Monday, confirming the COVID-19 public health emergency order would remain in place.

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