VA mandates COVID-19 vaccine for health care workers

The Department of Veterans Affairs will require COVID-19 vaccines for its health care workforce, the agency announced Monday.

Doctors, nurses, dentists and other Title 38 health care professionals who work in VA medical facilities or provide direct care to veterans are part of the department’s mandate, the first known directive among other federal agencies.

Employees will have eight weeks to get fully vaccinated. VA has been administering vaccines to veterans, its employees and other federal agency personnel since the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency authorization last December.

“We’re mandating vaccines for Title 38 employees because it’s the best way to keep veterans safe, especially as the delta variant spreads across the country,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “Whenever a veteran or VA employee sets foot in a VA facility, they deserve to know that we have done everything in our power to protect them from COVID-19. With this mandate, we can once again make — and keep — that fundamental promise.”

Employees will receive four hours of administrative leave once they show proof of full vaccination, a policy McDonough announced last month as a way to gauge the inoculation status of its workforce — particularly among those who did not visit a VA facility to get vaccinated.

In recent weeks, four unvaccinated employees have died due to complications from COVID-19, the department said. VA is also juggling an outbreak among unvaccinated employees and trainees at its law enforcement training center, the third one since the start of the pandemic, the agency said.

A total of 146 VA health care workers have died due to complications from COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to agency data.

Currently, VA is tracking a total of 326 active cases of COVID-19 among its employees, a number that’s certainly higher than it was earlier this spring when employee cases dipped below 100. It’s tracking 3,878 total cases today among veterans and others, including inpatients.

VA has fully vaccinated 300,099 employees, a number that includes volunteers, rotating clinical staff, or VA employees who have received vaccinations at a facility but aren’t specifically assigned to work at that hospital or clinic.

The department has more than 426,000 employees, including 382,672 in the Veterans Health Administration, according to the most recent data from the Office of Personnel Management.

VA has inoculated 3.4 million people in total, earning praise from Congress on both sides of the aisle for its speed and efficiency in administering vaccines earlier this year.

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.) praised VA’s decision to require vaccines for its employees.

“I support Secretary McDonough taking action to proactively protect veterans and the dedicated frontline staff who provide their care,” he said Monday in a statement. “As the largest integrated health care system in the country, VA is not only tasked with caring for veterans, but also with ensuring the safety of every doctor, nurse and health care professional who selflessly puts themselves in harm’s way each and every day to serve them.”

The Defense Department has been weighing a mandate for military members once the Food and Drug Administration approves the COVID-19 vaccines on a non-emergency basis. Vaccination rates vary within the individual services.

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