Veterans Affairs workers are among the least vaccinated against COVID-19 of all federal agencies, despite most facing earlier deadlines to get protection against the ongoing global pandemic that has killed nearly 17,000 department patients.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, roughly 87.8 percent of the department’s staff had received at least one dose of the vaccine regimen as of last week. That translates into about 52,000 of the department’s approximately 426,000 staffers lacking a vaccine.

Of that group, about 42,000 have requested an exemption to the policy based on health or religious reasons. The rest have either refused to comply or declined to respond to repeated requests about their status.

The department’s vaccinated percentage was below every other federal agency except the Department of Agriculture (86.1 percent). For comparison, the State Department’s vaccination rate is more than 96 percent. Across all government agencies, the figure is 92 percent.

In a statement, VA officials said that the department has “achieved 98.8 percent compliance with the vaccination requirement” for federal workers, noting that all but a few thousand staffers have either gotten a vaccine or formally requested an exemption.

VA spokesman Terrence Hayes called that mark “a significant achievement across the second-largest federal agency and largest healthcare system in the country.”

Department officials did not provide information on specifics of how many unvaccinated individuals work in health care or jobs involving direct contact with veterans.

“For the small percentage of employees who have not complied, we are continuing the education and counseling process, which will be followed by additional enforcement steps over time,” Hayes said. “There won’t be disruptions to services and operations, and at each step of this process we’ll see even more employees getting vaccinated.”

All federal employees were required by administration officials to be vaccinated against coronavirus by Nov. 22 or face disciplinary action, to include possible firing.

VA health care workers had faced even earlier deadlines, after Secretary Denis McDonough announced in late summer that most physicians and hospital staff would need to be vaccinated to ensure a safe and healthy environment for visiting patients.

About 355,000 patients connected to the department have contracted COVID-19 in the last 20 months. Of those, at least 16,745 have died from complications related to the virus.

In addition, about 29,000 VA staffers — roughly 7 percent of the workforce — have contracted coronavirus, and 232 employees died from virus-related conditions.

In October, VA leaders began mandatory counseling for employees who had not yet been vaccinated, the first step towards more severe punishment for refusal. Department leaders have not released information on any firings or resignations related to the mandate so far.

Hayes said that employees seeking exemptions are being reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

“Employees with pending exceptions are not subject to any discipline,” he said. “And if VA determines that they cannot receive an exception, they will have a reasonable timeframe to be vaccinated and come into compliance.”

McDonough has insisted on multiple occasions that the threat of losing thousands of staffers because of the vaccine mandate will not interfere with the department’s ability to provide care and benefits to veterans.

Hayes echoed that on Monday, saying that increasing vaccinations among staff will lead to “a safer, more productive, and efficient workforce.” But officials have sidestepped questions about how they’ll fill potentially tens of thousands of open jobs if workers continue to refuse to be vaccinated.

Earlier on Monday, President Joe Biden warned of the newest variant of the virus beginning to spread worldwide, and urged all American adults to not only get vaccinated but also to get a booster shot six months after their initial regimen.

“We’re throwing everything we can at this virus, tracking it from every angle,” he said. “And that’s what we have to keep doing. That’s how we reopen our country. That’s how we reopen our businesses. That’s how we reopen our schools.”

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.

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