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Biden Calls On The Military To Look Into Making The COVID-19 Vaccine Mandatory

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Biden has asked the military to look into making the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory. The Department of Defense admits vaccination rates are around 50%, no higher than the rest of the nation. And concerns are growing about the more contagious delta variant. Steve Walsh of member station KPBS in San Diego covers the military. Good to have you here.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Explain what the president is asking the military to do exactly.

WALSH: So the president is directing Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to look at what steps need to be taken to mandate the vaccine. Now, many congressional Democrats have been urging Biden to just go ahead and mandate it for the military, which he could do as commander in chief. He's been reluctant to do that. Right now, the vaccine is under emergency use authorization. There is a law that says the military cannot require treatment that is not fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration. That law is designed essentially to not allow the military to become guinea pigs for new treatments. Obviously, this is a bit different situation, though, since the very same vaccine is being administered to the general public already.

SHAPIRO: It seemed for a while like the numbers were really good for the Pentagon. In the last few weeks, the DOD told reporters they were approaching 70%. I just said the number is 50%. Explain what's going on here.

WALSH: Right. So - yeah, and that 70% is really significant. That's where you start getting to that so-called herd immunity, where vaccines really become the most effective at blocking new cases. Now, the Pentagon spokesman had said that they were almost there, and then new figures came out this week, which included the National Guard and the Reserves, and that vaccination rate dropped to 50%. Actually, the California National Guard just told me that their vaccination rate is also right around 50%. This comes as cases are beginning to tick up again in California with the delta variant. Indoor mask mandates are returning to Los Angeles and San Diego. The governor of California, Gavin Newsom, is ordering that all state employees either show proof of vaccination or face weekly testing and a return to wearing masks at all times. And the guard tells me that they will comply with the governor's new restrictions.

SHAPIRO: Last year, there were a number of COVID restrictions at U.S. bases. What is happening now, especially as the delta variant spreads?

WALSH: Ironically, the military was just starting to loosen its restrictions. Health protection levels had been headed back toward normal at bases in San Diego County. The USO even sponsored two shows here at the beginning of the month, a signal that the military was slowly reopening. But that may change soon. Yesterday, the Marines at Camp Pendleton announced that the base was going to be reimplementing health precautions as cases continue to rise here in San Diego.

SHAPIRO: And what are troops saying about how they feel about this?

WALSH: You know, it depends. The highest vaccination rates are in the Navy, which has those terrible outbreaks on board ships like the USS Roosevelt, where one sailor died. You know, outside the guard, the Marines have the lowest vaccination rate. They're among the youngest service. And, you know, we know with younger service members, they often don't show symptoms, and they feel that they're rather invincible.

But we are now seeing that - indications from the White House and the Pentagon that the military does plan to require the vaccine once the FDA does give full approval. So the U.S. military already requires as many as 17 vaccines for those in military service. It does feel likely that the COVID vaccine is about to join that list very soon, perhaps as early as September.

SHAPIRO: That's Steve Walsh of member station KPBS in San Diego. Thank you.

WALSH: Thanks, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.