Vaccination rates vary inside VA as mandate expands to broader federal workforce

While the rest of the federal workforce waits for more guidance about the Biden administration’s recently-announced vaccine mandate, the Department of Veterans Affairs is plugging along with its own policy for health care personnel.

Since the department first announced a vaccine mandate in July for certain employees in the Veterans Health Administration, VA has seen a 9% increase in inoculations based on data from its in-house medical records, Secretary Denis McDonough told reporters Wednesday.

That number could be more, considering some employees may have received doses outside of the VA hospital network and the department is still collecting attestations and documentation, McDonough said.

Roughly 380,000 VHA employees are subject to the VA vaccine mandate, which the agency expanded in August.

Of that population, 82%, or 311,600 VHA employees, have attested to their vaccination status so far. Of that number, 88%, or 274,208 employees, are fully or partially vaccinated, McDonough said.

VHA employees have until Oct. 8 to either get fully vaccinated or request a medical or religious accommodation. McDonough said it’s not clear how many employees across VHA have made medical or religious exception requests so far.

“We’re going to use this next period… to provide education,” he said. “We’re working with influencers to try to make sure that we’re getting information to them, to include doctors… to include our union partners, who have generously agreed to work with us to communicate with the workforce.”

Those who fail to comply with the VA vaccine mandate by the October deadline will be subject to the “progressive discipline” process.

“The goal of that discipline is to get people vaccinated,” McDonough said. “The last thing we want to do is have to fire trained personnel.”

Supervisors at the local VA level will implement the disciplinary process, McDonough said. Those who fail to get vaccinated after going through that process will be fired.

“I’m not in a position yet to say how many that might be,” he said. “But we’re making preparations to do this for the simple reason that the best way… to ensure safety for our veterans is to have those personnel vaccinated. Our goal, through this process, is to get to 100%. We have experience with this both in terms of the deployment of the vaccination but also the deployment of the disciplinary action with the flu mandate from last year.”

Vaccination rates vary among employees in other corners of VA, McDonough said.

“These are rough estimates,” he cautioned as he gave vaccination numbers from memory. “We get these daily updates from our colleagues; it’s kind of fun actually because they’re making really good progress.”

At the Veterans Benefits Administration, some 85% of the workforce has attested to their status, and a little more than 80% of those employees are fully or partially vaccinated.

Almost 90% of employees at the National Cemetery Administration have revealed their vaccination status, but 62-to-63% of those workers are fully or partially vaccinated.

Those employees have until Nov. 22 to get fully vaccinated under the president’s recent executive order for all executive branch workers.

VA continues to see an increase in the number of staff who are unavailable to work because they’re sick with COVID-19, leading some facilities to curtail care in certain situations, McDonough acknowledged.

No areas stand out as needing “major curtailments” of health care, Mark Upton, acting assistant undersecretary for health for community care, said Wednesday. But VA is tracking the facilities in Florida, Louisiana, Texas and a few other regions of the country that have experienced more significant surges of the delta variant.

Employees can sign up to deploy as disaster emergency medical personnel (DEMPS) to facilities that have staffing shortages, both due to COVID-19 or other emergencies.

“VA employees have been on the ground for every emergency that’s happened over the past couple of months, helping vets where they need it most, when they need it most,” McDonough said. “I know this is tiring for our VA colleagues. I know how demanding it is, and I know how hard you’ve been working for 18 months in the pandemic.

More than 180 VA workers volunteered recently to deploy to Louisiana as DEMPS in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, the department said.

“We have a lot of people who live down in those communities; they’re working,” McDonough said. “Many stayed overnight for many days or more than a week working in the New Orleans facility while their houses were torn apart.”

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