V.A. Issues Vaccine Mandate for Health Care Workers, a First for a Federal Agency
WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs will require 115,000 of its frontline health workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus over the next two months, making it the first federal agency to require employees to be vaccinated, said Monday government officials.
The move comes amid growing concerns that the substantial part of the population that has not been vaccinated is contributing to the rapid spread of the highly contagious Delta variant. While this was a radical departure from the Biden administration’s reluctance to accept warrants, it was part of a larger shift in which New York City, many hospital chains, and some private employers decide that now is the time to make vaccination a requirement.
“I’m doing it because it’s the best way to keep our veterans safe, period,” Denis McDonough, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, said Monday in a telephone interview. The department is one of the largest federal employers and the largest integrated health care system in the country.
The mandate will apply to workers who are “most in contact with patients,” McDonough said, including physicians, dentists, registered nurses, physician assistants and some specialists. As of Wednesday, those health workers will have eight weeks to get their full immunizations or face penalties, including possible dismissal, he said.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, reiterated the Biden administration’s position on Monday, saying the president “certainly recognizes that he is not always the right voice for every community on the benefits of being get vaccinated ”. But the department’s decision reflects a growing consensus among private sector employers, health centers and state and local governments to test legal waters on vaccine requirements as cases rise sharply in the country.
On Monday in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said all city workers should be vaccinated against the coronavirus by the time schools reopen in September or undergo weekly tests. California announced a similar measure, to be enacted by Aug. 23, for all state employees and public and private health workers on site.
President Biden could legally require members of the military to get vaccinated, but so far he has refused to exercise that power. Military officials, though frustrated by some military personnel’s refusal to be vaccinated, said their hands were tied until the vaccines received formal approval from the Food and Drug Administration.
Mr McDonough said he informed the White House of his decision.
Dozens of hospitals and health systems have forced their workers to get vaccinated, and recent court rulings have upheld the right of employers to require vaccinations. In June, a Texas federal judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by employees of the Houston Methodist Hospital challenging the hospital’s coronavirus vaccination requirement.
In recent weeks, there have been outbreaks of coronavirus among staff at Veterans Affairs Health Care Centers in Little Rock, Ark .; Baltimore; Orlando, Florida; and Chicago, causing staff shortages and forcing the department in some cases to take emergency action.
About 70 percent of workers at health care centers in the department have been fully immunized, which is above the national average but not enough to satisfy authorities given the dangers to veterans, who tend to be older. , sicker and perhaps more vulnerable to disease. “Our clinicians argue that we need a number higher than that,” said McDonough.
He has repeatedly expressed fears in recent weeks that centers with low vaccination rates endanger the health of ex-combatants seeking treatment. He said he did not know if any veterans had been sickened by workers in health care centers. To date, 146 department employees and 12,679 veterans, including 4,237 hospitalized patients, have died from complications from the coronavirus.
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Like many state and local governments, the department recently struck a deal with its employee union to offer workers four hours of paid administrative leave if they prove they had been fully immunized. “It was an important milestone,” McDonough said. “But I think now, given what we’re seeing in terms of disease trend lines, this is the next significant step.”
Other countries are considering mandates in general to increase vaccine acceptance. In France, Parliament this week approved a law requiring a “health pass” that shows proof of a full vaccination, recent negative test or recent Covid-19 recovery to enter restaurants or bars and for long distance travel.
Greece imposed vaccines on all hospital workers in mid-July and banned access to restaurants, bars and indoor cinemas for unvaccinated people, sparking protests. Italy is also moving forward with a vaccination mandate.
Department of Veterans Affairs employees will be able to appeal vaccination warrants for medical or religious reasons and benefit from due process, and others may resist. “I don’t know what to expect here,” McDonough said. “What I do know is that this is essentially the most important step to take in improving the safety of veteran patients.”
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