News & Politics

Afghan Evacuees Won't Be Forced to Take the COVID Vaccine, NORTHCOM Commander Says

AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

Gen. Glen VanHerck, the commander of the United States Northern Command, said during a press conference on Friday that around 7,000 Afghan refugees have thus far been airlifted to the U.S. The refugees, who will be housed at U.S. military bases around the country, will be offered the COVID-19 vaccine but won’t be forced to take it.

“The vaccines are being offered to them,” the NORTHCOM commander told reporters, noting that they’re being offered when the individuals land at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C.

“We offer them as well at task force locations,” he said, but noted that “they are not mandatory.”

“We see many of them are taking the vaccine if they’ve not already had it,” he added.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Friday confirmed that a mass-vaccination site has been set up at Dulles to greet arriving evacuees. A second such site is reportedly set to open at Philidelphia International Airport to vaccinate evacuees arriving there.

Individuals are tested upon arrival in the U.S. and quarantined if they test positive. VanHerck said that several people have tested positive, though he emphasized that it’s only a small percentage of the thousands who have arrived.

They were all crammed onto planes for hours on end as they were flown to the U.S.—and before hanging out at the crowded Kabul airport—so it wouldn’t be surprising to see a major outbreak amongst the evacuees over the next couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, members of the U.S. military will be forced to take the COVID-19 vaccine beginning next month, whether they want it or not. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin issued a guidance memo earlier this week outlining the policy.

“The memo directs the Secretaries of the Military Departments to immediately begin full vaccination of all members of the Armed Forces under DoD authority on active duty or in the Ready Reserve, including the National Guard, who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19,” Austin wrote.

If, as Austin claims, the vaccines are “necessary to protect the Force and defend the American people,” why are the requirements less stringent for Afghan evacuees who are being housed on our military bases? These are questions we’re not supposed to ask. Not surprisingly, none of the reporters in the room bothered to ask VanHerk about the double standard and why our brave soldiers are being treated more harshly than recently arrived evacuees from a country that’s not exactly known for its world-class healthcare.

In addition to the six bases already accepting evacuees, the Pentagon announced on Friday that additional bases will be added to that number. The list now includes Fort Lee, Virginia; Fort Bliss, Texas; Fort McCoy, Wisconsin; Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey; Fort Pickett, Virginia; Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico; and Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia.

The bases are equipped to handle up to 25,000 people, VanHerck said, adding that “culturally appropriate” halal food is being prepared and served at the bases by government contractors.

The evacuees have all been vetted by the State Department and Department of Homeland Security, according to the NORTHCOM commander, though he admitted that only half are here on special immigrant visas. It’s expected that they will spend several days at the U.S. bases, where they will undergo health screenings, before being resettled around the country.

Normally it takes months or years for refugees to be vetted before they’re allowed to enter the United States, but VanHerck said they’ve been able to accelerate the timetable for these individuals. Many of the Afghans who were flown here showed up at the Kabul airport without passports or valid identification. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas directed Customs and Border Protection to “parole” certain evacuees who have not yet been approved for entry, including some who have not yet applied to enter the country.  What could go wrong?

Update: White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters today that the “parolees” are being forced to take the vaccine.

So who is telling the truth here?