Army bases offering vaccine incentives but no military-wide policy for now

At least three Army bases are now offering incentives for soldiers to receive the Covid-19 vaccine, including additional days off, gym access and reduced movement restrictions.

Near Seattle, Joint Base Lewis-McChord announced in a memo obtained by CNN on Thursday that there will be “up to four hour periods each day during which Welfare/Recreation activities and installation services will be accessible only to vaccinated personnel,” including 24-hour gym access. In addition, as units’ vaccination rates rise, the entire unit will get days off, from three days off at 60% vaccination to an additional four days off at 80% vaccination.

The base has a population of 110,000, including active-duty, family members and civilian employees.

“Soldiers and community members must make the best choice for themselves, and their family and loved ones with regard to volunteering to receive the vaccine,” wrote base commander Lt. Gen. Randy George in the memo, framing the coronavirus as a challenge to military readiness. “However, our focus must remain fixed on increasing readiness and account for the different risks that vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals pose for infection and transmission of COVID-19.”

Unvaccinated soldiers also will be subject to more stringent movement restrictions, allowing commanders to limit unvaccinated troops to go only as far as Oregon, Washington or Idaho, while vaccinated soldiers face no such limitation.

Joint Base Lewis-McChord is the latest base to begin offering incentives for troops to receive the vaccine. Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, has been offering some incentives since March, said spokesman Col. Joe Buccino. Incentives include using the gym without a mask and sitting in indoor dining spaces. Though the incentives are not as broad as those at Lewis-McChord, Buccino says they have worked at Fort Bragg.

“Our opt-in rates are definitely going up,” Buccino told CNN on Thursday.

Fort Drum, in upstate New York, has offered similar incentives.

Even so, the Pentagon is not considering an incentive program for the entire military.

“I think, like the secretary [of defense] said, the best incentive is to know that you’re doing the right thing for your family, for your friends and for your teammates,” said chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.

“There are of course local base commanders, and you’ve seen some of them adopting modest ways of recognizing those who have received the vaccine, but they do that at their level,” Kirby added. “I’m not aware of any specific DoD enterprise-wide incentives that are in the works.”

The coronavirus pandemic has been one of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s top priorities since the beginning of the Biden administration. He has made multiple statements and recorded videos urging troops to get vaccinated, but he has run up against the problem of vaccine hesitancy in the military, especially the younger, healthier population, who see little compelling reason to get the vaccine.

As of late April, the Marine Corps had a declination rate of 36%, but the rate was far worse — 67% — at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. The other military branches have not released service-wide numbers.

The Covid-19 vaccines currently have only an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, and there is no indication that President Joe Biden is considering signing a waiver to make vaccinations mandatory for service members, despite urging from some House Democrats.

“Getting the vaccine in and of itself should be an incentive,” acting Assistant Defense Secretary for Health Affairs Terry Adirim said at a press briefing in late April. Because the vaccinations are voluntary, commanders have to be careful not to exert what may be considered undue command influence.

The new incentives at Joint Base Lewis-McChord don’t require or urge soldiers to get vaccinated. Instead, the memo refers to the vaccines as “a powerful tool in the fight against the pandemic” while stating that all of the incentives and steps comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Defense Department guidelines.