Officials said the move is designed “to keep the veterans [VA] serves safe].” The mandate has been discussed as a possibility in recent weeks, but the recent nationwide surges in the Delta variant of the virus pushed leaders to enact the change now.
All Title 38 employees — including physicians, dentists, podiatrists, optometrists, registered nurses, physician assistants, expanded-function dental auxiliaries and chiropractors — who work in Veterans Health Administration facilities or provide direct care to veterans on VA’s behalf will have eight weeks to be fully vaccinated.
“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,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “With this mandate, we can once again make and keep that fundamental promise.”
President Joe Biden also confirmed the move during a press conference on Monday, saying that “all doctors working at VA facilities are going to have to be vaccinated.”
The move is likely to be met with fierce opposition — including possible legal challenges — from groups who view vaccine mandates as an infringement on their personal rights. Critics have also noted that the vaccines are still likely months away from full approval by the Food and Drug Administration.
The most commonly used vaccines in America, manufactured by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, have been approved for emergency use. Federal officials estimate about half of all adults and teenagers in the United States are vaccinated.
VA officials said earlier this month about 300,000 employees have been fully vaccinated against coronavirus, roughly 70 percent of the department’s employee total. But they also acknowledged that figure fluctuates from location to location. Around 115,000 VA workers fall under then Title 38 classification.
At the New Orleans VA Medical Center — which last year had among the highest numbers of patient cases and deaths from the virus — nearly 85 percent of staff was fully vaccinated at the start of July. The St. Cloud VA Health Care System in Minnesota hadn’t reached 60 percent by that date.
At least four VA employees have died from coronavirus-related illnesses since mid-June. On Monday, VA officials confirmed that all four were unvaccinated, and that three died as a result of the Delta variant.
In addition, the VA Law Enforcement Training Center located in Little Rock, Ark., has seen a recent outbreak in coronavirus cases, the third such surge at the location since the pandemic began in early 2020.
Department officials noted that all VA employees are eligible to be vaccinated for free at any VA vaccination site, and may receive up to four hours of paid administrative leave to complete the vaccinations.
Veterans, their spouses and their caregivers are also eligible for the free vaccines through VA.
Earlier in the day, when asked about vaccine mandates, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that administration officials are willing to take whatever steps necessary to keep Americans safe.
“We’re not going to judge our success here by whether we score political points,” she said. “We’re going to judge it by whether we are able to save more lives. And if the health and medical experts suggest those are the right way to go, then we will support that.”
VA officials said the American Medical Association, American Nurses Association, American College of Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, Association of American Medical Colleges, and National Association for Home Care and Hospice have endorsed mandating COVID-19 vaccination for health care workers.
In a statement, officials from AMVETS also praised the move.
“Mandating all patient-facing staff in VA medical facilities to be fully vaccinated in order to continue serving veterans is the right thing to do,” said Joe Chenelly, AMETS national executive director. “Every VA employee coming into contact with a veteran should be expected to take every measure possible to ensure they are not endangering veterans who are in VA facilities.”
As of Monday, at least 12,679 VA patients have died from Covid-related complications, a rate of about 25 a day since the start of the pandemic. Active cases among VA patients have risen sharply in the last month, up more than 170 percent from late-June levels.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.