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Pentagon civilian vaccine mandate is a massive logistical lift

DOD has vaccine proof for less than half of its civilian workforce

A Defense Department vaccine site at Fort Knox, Ky., last month.
A Defense Department vaccine site at Fort Knox, Ky., last month. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

The Pentagon has begun the monumental task of fully vaccinating hundreds of thousands of civilian employees against the coronavirus with just weeks to meet its self-imposed deadline of Nov. 22. But as of yet, it has no system to verify who’s gotten the jab.

There are 763,000 civil servants at the Defense Department, and just 42 percent of them, or just under 319,000, are fully vaccinated, according to the Pentagon’s public data.

But those figures are largely unverified, an amalgamation of self-reported numbers and data supplied by DOD health care providers, if an employee received a shot through one.

Still, the department is plowing ahead. Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks announced the civilian mandate on Oct. 1, following a directive from President Joe Biden three weeks earlier requiring all federal employees to receive a vaccine.

“Vaccinating DOD civilian employees against COVID-19 will save lives and allow for the defense of our nation. Thank you for your focus on this critical mission,” she said in a memorandum announcing the rule.

Rapid timeline

DOD civilians who want the vaccine manufactured by Moderna will need to get the first of two required shots by Monday to meet the deadline because full vaccination requires waiting two weeks after the final shot. Those opting for Pfizer-BioNTech shots will need to get started by Oct. 18, while those willing to take the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine must get it by Nov. 8.

That doesn’t give the Pentagon much time. It is moving now to create a process to verify the vaccination status of its employees. That system could be announced as soon as this week, but the exact timing is unclear. 

More DOD civilians than active-duty military or contractors have died from the virus. As of Oct. 7, 334 Pentagon civilian employees have died from the coronavirus, out of 38,265 recorded cases. 

By comparison, just 62 military personnel have died from the virus, out of 246,720 cases.

The federal mandates are part of a larger push by Biden to jump-start inoculations in the U.S., as just 65.8 percent of those currently eligible for vaccination have received the requisite shots, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“We’ve been patient. But our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us,” Biden said, speaking from the White House last month to those who had yet to get vaccinated.

In August, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III ordered all U.S. troops to get vaccinated against COVID-19, but he left the timelines up to the individual services. All servicemembers, save for those in the Army Reserve, are due to be fully vaccinated by year’s end. 

According to Pentagon data, some 1.3 million active-duty servicemembers are fully vaccinated, or about 92 percent. 

House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., commended the Pentagon’s timeline in a statement Tuesday. 

“The Department of Defense’s decision to require COVID-19 vaccination by Nov. 22 for the Department’s civilian workforce will save lives and further protect communities across the United States from this deadly virus,” Smith said. “This guidance for civilian employees of the Department also builds on progress to protect U.S. servicemembers from COVID-19 by making vaccination mandatory across the entire force. This is the right decision for our public health and our national security.”

The American Federation of Government Employees, a union representing many DOD civilian workers, said after Biden announced the mandate in September that it supported vaccination but expected to bargain over the mandate’s  implementation. In a notice to members on its website, the union acknowledges Biden’s legal authority and says it expects “the scope of bargaining is likely to be limited.” The notice urges employees to proceed with the shots.

Rewards and risks

Mandates are increasing uptake, as evidence in the private sector and in the states shows.

United Airlines has vaccinated 99.5 percent of its employees since telling its workers to get vaccinated if they wanted to stay on the payroll, NPR reported Thursday. And similar stories can be found across the country — Tyson Foods and the New York City school system have all reported vaccination rates of more than 90 percent after imposing mandates, according to NPR. 

Still, the mandate could pose some risks for the Defense Department, should enough civilian employees choose to resign rather than get the shot.

Just half of workers at two critical Navy shipyards have taken a vaccine, Defense One reported on Sept. 23. The workers, who build Navy combat ships and frigates, are federal contractors. The White House plans to release vaccination guidance for hundreds of thousands of federal contractors on Friday.

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