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Fort Bragg ready for expected mandate that all troops be vaccinated against coronavirus

Posted August 5, 2021 5:14 a.m. EDT
Updated August 6, 2021 9:27 a.m. EDT

— Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is expected to order Friday that all active-duty U.S. military personnel be vaccinated against coronavirus, and Fort Bragg officials say the move is vital to the famed readiness of the 82nd Airborne Division.

Paratroopers in the division can be deployed anywhere in the world within 18 hours.

"Our soldiers have to maintain a higher level of readiness," Fort Bragg spokesman Col. Joe Buccino said. "COVID degrades readiness, of course. Soldiers get sick. If there's an outbreak inside of our immediate response force, it's going to hurt readiness. So, that's what we're trying to fight through, and that's the challenge we have in the unvaccinated population."

Dr. Bruce McClenathan, of the Defense Health Agency, said troops need to get their shots as soon as possible in case they need to deploy.

"We can't vaccinate them on the way out the door. They're not fully protected," McClenathan said. "It's paramount that we, just like other immunizations, we need to get those immunizations in them and get them to a fully protected [state] before they go into harm's way in defense of our country."

More than 15 vaccinations are already given to active-duty personnel, including doses against chickenpox, hepatitis A and B, rabies, yellow fever and typhoid. But those vaccines have all been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, while the three coronavirus vaccines now in use in the U.S. are all being administered under an emergency authorization during the pandemic.

McClenathan said the lack of full FDA approval shouldn't matter.

"The bottom line is these vaccines are extraordinarily safe and effective, and they're the most proven way to get rid of this pandemic so that we can get back to a sense of normal and protect our troops," he said.

Between 60 and 80 percent of Fort Bragg troops are already vaccinated through voluntary clinics held at Womack Army Medical Center in recent months, officials said.

Fort Bragg spokesman Capt. Javon Starnes said he regrets not getting vaccinated earlier, as he contracted COVID-19.

"I experienced very severe symptoms – chills, shakes, fever. I had to take Tylenol every six hours just to deal with the migraines. My wife still deals with it because of the long-term effects," Starnes said.

Fortunately, he said, none of his three children caught the virus. He said he now welcomes a vaccination order from the Pentagon.

"I want to make sure that I'm protecting my family, for one, and also, if something is readily available, why not use it?" he said.

The expected move by Austin, a former 82nd Airborne paratrooper and battalion commander and commander of Fort Bragg and the XVIII Airborne Corps, comes days after President Joe Biden urged all federal employees to get vaccinated.

The Pentagon previously indicated it was likely to wait for FDA approval before making the vaccination mandatory, but Biden's push for greater vaccination levels created pressure to move more quickly and will likely lead the military leaders to request a presidential waiver to mandate the shots.

Biden announced on July 29 that he was asking the Defense Department to "look into how and when" it would add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of mandatory military vaccinations. He said he knew that Austin was "open to it."

Fort Bragg and Womack Army Medical Center officials said they have been planning for weeks for a possible vaccination mandate. They said very few exemptions to the mandate will be allowed.

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