Utah Republicans are among those pushing for an end to the U.S. military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate — and they could be successful if a version of the National Defense Authorization Act released Tuesday night passes.
The effort by politicians to end the pandemic-induced order is not supported by some of the military’s top leaders, including the secretary of defense, who say the vaccine is keeping America’s military safe.
The House of Representatives’ version of the NDAA — a massive, annual spending bill with the primary purpose of approving the Department of Defense’s budget for the year ahead —would repeal a COVID-19 vaccine mandate that has been in place since August 2021.
The inclusion of the provision comes after 13 Republican senators, including Utah Sen. Mike Lee, signed a letter on Nov. 30 refusing to vote on the NDAA if it did not remove the requirement and reinstate discharged unvaccinated members.
“The United States simply cannot afford to discharge our brave men and women in uniform and lose the investments we have made into each and every one of them due to an inept bureaucratic policy,” the letter reads.
On the same day, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and 20 other GOP governors also sent a letter to congressional leaders asking that they take action against the mandate — either through the NDAA or a standalone bill.
Cox sent his own letter in August, he said in a tweet Wednesday, in which he pleaded with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to “reconsider” the vaccine requirement.
“Although COVID-19 continues having an impact on military personnel just as it does on employees in every industry, there is a tradeoff we should recognize between the benefits of a mandate and the cost it imposes,” Cox wrote.
While Tuesday’s version of the NDAA would remove the vaccine mandate, it would not reinstate members already discharged for not getting vaccinated — an omission that could ignite legal challenges.
In a tweet Wednesday morning, Utah Rep. Chris Stewart — an Air Force veteran — touted the end of the mandate as “a win for America,” saying, “There’s no doubt this decision put our national security at risk.”
“We should never be terminating service members for not getting a vaccine, and I think we’re going to be able to reverse that now that we have the majority and that leverage,” Rep. Blake Moore, who represents Hill Air Force Base in Utah’s 1st Congressional District, told The Salt Lake Tribune in a Wednesday interview discussing the new GOP majority in Congress.
As pressure has mounted to rescind the mandate in recent days, Austin told reporters on Saturday that he wants the rule left in place, The Associated Press reported. Austin ordered the initial vaccine mandate, which has been mostly held up by court orders for all military branches except the Army, last year.
“A million people died in the United States of America,” Lloyd said. “We lost hundreds in DOD. So this mandate has kept people healthy.”
The Army fell 15,000 soldiers short of its fiscal year 2022 recruitment goal. That number — impacted by labor shortages and a decline in young people interested in putting on the uniform — amounted to 25% fewer soldiers than it hoped to enlist.
Last week, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, the branch’s top general, defended the mandate as necessary to keep the armed forces healthy, but said it has hurt recruiting in parts of the country where vaccine misinformation is prevalent, Military.com reported.
According to the Department of Defense, as of mid-November, over 2,700 service members have been hospitalized from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, and 96 have died. When civilian workers, dependents and contractors are taken into account, those numbers balloon to nearly 6,500 hospitalizations and 690 deaths.
Tribune reporter Jacob Scholl contributed to this story.