Defense Department officials told lawmakers today they believe all DOD personnel will be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by late July or early August, though about one-third of all personnel eligible for the voluntary vaccine have thus far refused to take it.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeff Taliaferro, vice director for operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee approximately two-thirds of those who have been offered the voluntary vaccine have accepted it, meaning about one-third have declined.
"Of course, we believe a vaccine is the right thing to do," he said. "It's clearly safe for servicemembers. We need to continue to educate our force and help them understand the benefits."
Robert Salesses, the acting assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security, told the committee 916,575 people at DOD, including military personnel, civilians and contractors, have received a combination of the first and second vaccine doses.
Salesses said 395,000 troops have been vaccinated, with 147,000 receiving both doses.
Today marks the first day a DOD official has publicly discussed the department's vaccine refusal rate, though questions about it have been posed repeatedly in press conferences.
Taliaferro said servicemembers who decline to take the voluntary vaccine are still considered "deployable."
"We've already demonstrated over the last year that we're fully capable of operating in a COVID environment," he said.
Additionally, he said, military readiness ratings have stayed "within historic norms, largely because of the adaptive and aggressive action by the services and the combatant commands."
While many vaccinations are mandatory for DOD personnel, vaccinations for COVID-19 are voluntary because they have been authorized by the federal government for emergency use. The vaccine could become mandatory once the Food and Drug Administration fully approves the vaccine.
"We don't precisely know why an individual has not received a vaccine," Taliaferro said, referring to those who have declined.
"We think it's important that the department continue to communicate to our servicemembers the value of the vaccine, the safety of the vaccine with continued leadership involvement," he said.