VHA employee vaccinations on the rise amid surge in COVID cases, deaths

The Department of Veterans Affairs is seeing an uptick in employee vaccinations, a month after the agency first announced a mandate of sorts for health care workers — and amid a surge in cases across its network.

Since Secretary Denis McDonough announced plans on July 26 to require the vaccine for health care workers, the number of doses administered by VA to employees has more than doubled compared to a low point earlier that month, a department spokesman told Federal News Network.

McDonough since expanded the vaccine policy to include nearly all health care workers, contractors and volunteers inside the Veterans Health Administration.

About 9,000 additional employees have received at least one dose from VA since the end of July, the department said.

To date, VA has not started administering booster shots for employees, the spokesman said.

According to an Aug. 13 directive from VHA, employees must either be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or request a medical or religious exemption from the policy. Those who have an approved medical or religious accommodation must agree in writing to wear a mask.

Employees who received doses at VA or have already submitted documents proving their vaccination don’t have to do anything else. Those who haven’t submitted proof of vaccination must fill out a form from VA and submit it before the deadline. VA medical facilities must remind their employees of the requirements.

“Compliance with the policy, via either vaccination or exemption, is required by Oct. 8, 2021, after which disciplinary action related to noncompliance can be enforced,” a VA spokesman said Wednesday in an email to Federal News Network. “Those in violation of this directive may face disciplinary action up to and including removal from federal service.”

All told, VHA is seeking proof of vaccination from 384,000 employees, the department said.

In the meantime, the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Federation of Federal Employees, which both represent frontline health care workers at VA, said they’re still bargaining with the department over the details of the vaccine policy.

With bargaining underway — and the prospect of disciplinary action for failing to comply still at least month away for certain employees — VA’s current vaccination efforts, in many ways, mirror the programs that other agencies are trying to establish.

“All employees are currently being asked to attest to their vaccination status,” the spokesman said. “To help provide the safest health care environment for our nation’s veterans, those employees who attest to being unvaccinated, not fully vaccinated, or choose not to provide vaccine information will be completing weekly testing when onsite.”

Testing isn’t part of VHA’s own directive, but VA is complying with the policies created by the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force, the department said. On-site VA contractors who are unvaccinated or decline to answer must wear a mask and provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test from the three previous days, the spokesman said.

Like much of the country, the VA is experiencing its own spike in COVID-19 cases among veterans and employees.

“We’ve… unfortunately continued to see surging numbers of COVID and staff calling out sick,”  Steven Lieberman, the official performing the duties of the undersecretary for health, said in an Aug. 26 email to VHA employees.

As of Aug. 30, 17 VHA employees have died last month due to complications from COVID-19, the department said.

Lieberman at one point said the department in August had experienced the highest number of employee deaths due to COVID-19 in a single month since the pandemic began.

But the department has since confirmed he misspoke; VHA actually experienced the highest number of employee deaths in a month last December, when 28 staff members died due to complications from the virus.

Still, data VA provided to Federal News Network shows the department saw a spike in COVID-related deaths among employees in the month of August.

Source: Department of Veterans Affairs

The data comes from Veterans Integrated Service Networks across the country, who report employee deaths to the Veterans Health Administration’s central office when they have new information available. Most employees aren’t treated at VA facilities, meaning the reporting of some data may be delayed, the department said.

“I understand how upsetting this can be, and the grief that can accompany such losses,” Lieberman said in his email to VA staff. “Please continue to reach out and be there for your colleagues and take advantage of resources such as the employee assistance program whenever needed.”

The department is currently tracking 13,951 active COVID cases among veterans, employees and others, including 1,163 cases in the VHA workforce. Just last month, VA employee cases hovered in the 300s in late July.

On Wednesday, VA facilities in Bay Pines, Gainesville, Orlando and Tampa, Florida had the most active cases of COVID-19 among employees, according to the department’s public dashboard.

A total of 177 VA employees have died due to complications from COVID-19, according to the department.

VA facilities in New Jersey, Indianapolis, Dallas, Denver and Reno, Nevada, have seen the most deaths in the workforce, with six employees having died in each location since the pandemic began.

VA said the rise in active cases and employee deaths is due to the delta variant, which has become the dominant strain of COVID-19 across the United States.

“As a high reliability organization, the safety of veterans and staff is the highest priority in the provision of health care services and procedures,” the VA spokesman said. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, VA has worked to ensure its staff has access to an adequate level of supplies and equipment, and VA increased the number of days of supply on hand from 30 days to 180 days to ensure adequate coverage.”

Citing privacy concerns, the department declined to share whether the employees who died due to COVID-19 were vaccinated.

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