Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin sent a memo to service members Monday telling them that he intended to ask President Joe Biden for a waiver allowing him to make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory by mid-September.

The president quickly offered support for the idea as the administration seeks to increase the number of people inoculated against the coronavirus, which has been spreading rapidly due to a highly contagious variant.

“I strongly support Secretary Austin’s message to the force today on the Department of Defense’s plan to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required vaccinations for our service members not later than mid-September,” Biden said in a press release.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, left, fist bumps former Indo-Pacific Command Adm. Philip Davidson during a change of command ceremony held at Pearl Harbor. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The military has a huge presence in Hawaii with 41,290 active duty troops and 9,653 National Guardsmen and reservists, most on Oahu. Defense spending made up as much as 7.7% of the state’s GDP as of 2019, the most recent available numbers from the state.

Across the military, 73% of active duty personnel have received at least one shot to date,  according to a Monday press release by the Pentagon. The military has not released local vaccination or infection rates for Hawaii, citing national security concerns.

A spokesperson from U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said it’s still generally the military’s policy not to discuss rates at the local level, but that the policy may change in the future as all of the service’s COVID-19 guidelines are subject to change in response to new circumstances.

Service officials have previously said that among active duty troops by service roughly 75% of Navy sailors are fully vaccinated compared with about 62% of soldiers, 61% of airmen and Space Force Guardians, with the Marine Corps coming in last at 59%.

At least 28 service members, 16 dependents, 254 civilian employees and 87 contractors have died from COVID-19. One member of the Hawaii National Guard died of complications from the virus in November.

The military has mandated 17 other vaccines for troops to prevent Polio, Typhoid, Yellow Fever and other diseases. But currently troops can refuse to get inoculated for COVID-19 because the Food and Drug Administration has only approved the vaccines for emergency use.

Pentagon Spokesman John Kirby said Austin will immediately add the COVID-19 vaccines to the mandatory military list if the FDA grants full approval before mid-September.

Though medical researchers and health care providers almost unanimously consider the vaccines safe, the FDA’s approval process has dragged on even as the new delta variant leads to increasing deaths and infections among unvaccinated people.

“Being vaccinated will enable our service members to stay healthy, to better protect their families, and to ensure that our force is ready to operate anywhere in the world,” Biden said.

The virus has disrupted military operations, including in Hawaii. Last summer several Thai Army troops tested positive after training with American troops in Hawaii, briefly causing Thailand to temporarily suspend all military training with the United States.

More than 1,000 soldiers are holding the largest exercise they’ve ever conducted in Indonesia, including Hawaii-based troops. Army officials said that only fully vaccinated American soldiers were allowed to travel to Indonesia to participate in the exercise.

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