VA, HHS expand vaccines mandate to nearly all health care workers

While the White House didn’t go as far as mandating COVID-19 vaccines for all federal employees, department secretaries are quickly making it a requirement.

The latest is the department of Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services. Today, VA Secretary Denis McDonough and HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra announced new requirements for health care workers in their respective agencies to receive the vaccine.

McDonough say VA will expand the vaccine mandate to nearly every employee, contractor and volunteer in the Veterans Health Administration that comes in close contact with patients.

VA said this requirement would go into effect Friday, meaning directly affected employees will have eight weeks to provide proof of vaccination to their local VHA Occupational Health Office.

McDonough said in a release that requiring vaccines is the best way to keep veterans safe, particularly as the Delta variant continues to spread.

“This pandemic is not over and VA must do everything in our power to protect Veterans from COVID-19. With this expanded mandate, we can once again make — and keep — that fundamental promise,” he said.

VA says the expanded vaccine requirement will impact workers under the Hybrid Title 38, and Title 5 VA health care personnel — such as psychologists, pharmacists, social workers, nursing assistants, physical therapists, respiratory therapists, peer specialists, medical support assistants, engineers, housekeepers and other clinical, administrative and infrastructure support employees who come into contact with VA patients and health care workers.

The agency says all employees are eligible to be vaccinated at no personal expense at any of VA’s facilities, and would also receive four hours of paid administrative leave after demonstrating they have been vaccinated.

Meanwhile, Becerra is mandating vaccines for HHS’s 25,000 health care workforce that includes employees at the National Institutes of Health, the Indian Health Service and members of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps must be vaccinated. HHS didn’t give a timeline for employees to reach this goal. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, however, did say members of the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps must be vaccinated immediately.

The vaccine mandate applies to employees at IHS and NIH “who serve in federally-operated health care and clinical research facilities and interact with, or have the potential to come into contact with, patients,” including employees, contractors, trainees and volunteers.

HHS says employees at IHS, NIH and the Commissioned Corps already are required to receive the seasonal influenza vaccine and other routine vaccinations, with processes for medical and religious exemptions. The agency added all agencies would implement this new COVID-19 vaccination requirement using the same processes already in place for these other vaccines.

VA’s latest directive comes less than three weeks after VA released its first vaccine mandate for doctors, nurses, dentists and other Title 38 health care professionals who work in VA medical facilities or provide direct care to veterans.

The latest data from VA shows more than 302,000 employees already have been fully vaccinated out of 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. Among VA employees, there currently are 765 active cases of COVID-19, more than 20,000 are recovering from infection and 148 employees have died from the virus.

VA’s decision to expand its vaccine mandate comes after the Defense Department announced all troops must receive two shots against COVID by mid-September.

DoD says about 62% of the 1.4 million person force is currently vaccinated.

DoD and VA, so far, are the only two agencies to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for most of their employees. The White House on July 29 said agencies will require employees and onsite contractors to attest their vaccination status or be subject to masking, social distancing and COVID-19 testing requirements. Later on Aug. 6, the administration released a vaccination status form employees must fill out and added that any employee who is found to have lied about being vaccinated could face disciplinary actions.

The administration’s frequently asked questions (FAQs) warn it’s a federal crime for “anyone” to provide false information on the form, and doing so “could also affect continuing eligibility for access to classified information or for employment in a national security position under applicable adjudicative guidelines.”

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