The Pentagon will begin regular mandatory COVID-19 testing of unvaccinated civilian workers this fall, its next step in fighting the disease after requiring troops to get the shots, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said Wednesday.
Hicks said the department is adding stricter monitoring of its massive workforce of about 700,000 civilians, and also is considering how to deal with contractors, after President Joe Biden announced in July his intention to test all federal employees.
"We're working closely across the department and with interagency colleagues on the right approach for our contractors who are present on a routine basis on defense installations to make sure we have the right strategy for them," Hicks said during a virtual defense conference.
Civilian employees will be required to provide an "attestation of testing," meaning they must supply proof of vaccination, or undergo testing to monitor for the disease, which has killed 436 people in the Defense Department.
More than half of the reported deaths -- 282 -- were civilians. COVID-19 has killed 96 contractors and 40 service members, according to the department.
But only about half of the civilian workforce, or 310,669 employees, has been fully vaccinated, the department's data shows.
The Pentagon is the largest federal agency and one of the largest civilian employers in the U.S., making its switch to mandatory testing significant. Businesses, states and health care facilities across the country also have mandated regular testing.
Last month, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered all active-duty troops to be vaccinated, and the military services are in the process of rolling out rules and timelines. The Pentagon has said the vaccine mandate is a lawful order and troops face repercussions for refusing, though it remains unclear whether it would result in judicial punishment or separation from the military.
Biden announced the federal employee testing requirement July 29 in an effort to ramp up lagging national vaccination rates as the Delta variant of the coronavirus first took hold.
"Anyone who does not attest to being fully vaccinated will be required to wear a mask on the job no matter their geographic location, physically distance from all other employees and visitors, comply with a weekly or twice weekly screening testing requirement, and be subject to restrictions on official travel," the White House announcement said.
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