Healthcare staff at the Veterans Health Administration facilities must get COVID-19 vaccines, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced Monday, making it the first federal agency to mandate shots among its workers.
The requirement applies to “physicians, dentists, podiatrists, optometrists, registered nurses, physician assistants, expanded-function dental auxiliaries and chiropractors healthcare personnel,” according to a VA press release.
Starting on July 28, Title 38 VA healthcare personnel will have 8 weeks to get their shot, according to the release. Non-compliant employees could face penalties including possible removal from their facilities, according to the New York Times.
“We’re mandating vaccines for Title 38 employees because it’s the best way to keep Veterans safe, especially as the Delta variant spreads across the country,” said VA Secretary Denis McDonough, in a statement. “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. With this mandate, we can once again make — and keep — that fundamental promise.”
Four VA employees have died of COVID-19 in recent weeks, according to the statement. All four were unvaccinated and at least three of those deaths were related to the “increasingly prevalent Delta variant.” The VA also cited an outbreak among unvaccinated employees and trainees at a VA Law Enforcement Training Center — the third of its kind during the pandemic — as another reason for the vaccination mandate for personnel.
Employees will receive 4 hours of paid administrative leave once their vaccination has been confirmed, the VA stated, highlighting COVID-19 vaccine safety and effectiveness in an FAQ.
However, the VA’s public affairs office told MedPage Today that the VA “will recognize medical and religious exemptions with the proper attestation. Those individuals must continue to implement other public health mitigation measures, including use of personal protective equipment and submitting for COVID-19 testing.”
In terms of medical exemptions, the “reasons for medical exemption must be recognized contraindications and precautions to COVID-19 vaccination by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” according to the VA’s public affairs office.
Additionally, if “a deeply held religious belief prevents [healthcare professionals] from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, they must [declare] the exemption and [acknowledge] the requirement to indefinitely wear a face mask. Those in violation of this directive may face disciplinary action up to and including removal from federal service, to be applied with all transparency and due process.”
In relaying its decision, the VA pointed to support for vaccine mandates from multiple major medical societies, including the American Medical Association and American Nurses Association, as well as from hospital groups such as the American Hospital Association.
Some non-government health systems already have COVID-19 vaccine mandates in place. In April, Houston Methodist issued a vaccine mandate to its 26,000 employees, the first hospital system to do so. Subsequently, more than 150 hospital employees quit or were terminated when they refused to get vaccinated by the pre-set deadline of June 21. The health system granted religious or medical exemptions to 285 employees and another 332 were allowed to delay vaccination until after completing their pregnancies, according to a spokesperson.
Two other health organizations — the University of Pennsylvania Health System in Philadelphia and RWJ Barnabas Health in New Jersey — have also issued COVID-19 vaccine mandates for their employees.