Psychiatry resident Deborah Levy receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from registered nurse Ayonna Williams at the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System Medical Center in New Orleans on Dec. 15, 2020.

Psychiatry resident Deborah Levy receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from registered nurse Ayonna Williams at the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System Medical Center in New Orleans on Dec. 15, 2020. Gerald Herbert / AP

Many VA Employees Apprehensive About Vaccine Mandate as Department Begins Implementation

Some medical workers say they will quit or retire rather than comply with the new requirement.

Many employees at the Veterans Affairs Department are voicing frustration with the newly imposed COVID-19 vaccine mandate, with some workers saying they will quit or retire rather than comply. 

VA is in the midst of implementing the new requirements, which Secretary Denis McDonough announced on July 26. Employees have eight weeks to submit to their facilities proof of their vaccinations or to claim religious or medical exemption. The department has already begun sending notices to staff explaining the process, pointing to forms requiring either a doctor’s signature for medical exemptions or a supervisor’s signature for a “deeply held religious belief” that prevents workers from receiving a vaccine. Employees who received a vaccine outside the VA system will require extra documentation demonstrating they have been inoculated. 

The mandate will impact about 115,000 health care professionals working under the laws of Title 38 of the U.S. Code. About 70% of those individuals are currently vaccinated, meaning about 35,000 must now make decisions about whether to get vaccinated or face potential consequences. 

VA has not specified what exactly will happen to employees who decline the vaccine, saying only in a memorandum that anyone who fails to certify vaccination or an exemption “may face disciplinary action up to and including removal from federal service.” Mark Ballestoros, a VA spokesman, said he could not specify an “exact process” for those workers. He explained only that “any possible disciplinary action will be undertaken with full transparency and complete due process.”

One VA employee who is not vaccinated and plans to submit a medical exemption told Government Executive her management has not said outright that those who decline the vaccine without a valid excuse would be fired, but the ambiguity felt “threatening.” She noted some of her colleagues have already discussed their plans to retire or quit in light of the mandate, though she has counseled them to force the department to fire them to maximize legal recourse. 

“I was surprised the choice was being taken away,” said the employee, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. “That’s not what America stands for.” 

She added the mandate has created an extra layer of tension, with vaccinated staffers telling their colleagues “very much vocally” that their unvaccinated colleagues deserve to lose their jobs for putting veterans at risk. 

“It’s its own little war,” the employee said. 

In a message to VA staff, McDonough took a similar tone. 

“Any unvaccinated employees with veterans right now are putting those veterans at risk,” McDonough wrote. “And that’s a risk we cannot take.” He noted the VA law enforcement training facility recently experienced a COVID-19 outbreak and several department employees have died from the virus in recent weeks. “Nearly every person dying from COVID-19 right now is unvaccinated—which means from now on, almost every COVID-19 death is preventable. That is why Title 38 employees must be vaccinated.” 

A VA nurse in Indianapolis who has been vaccinated said many of her colleagues are “anxious and angry” about the mandate. She estimated that 10 coworkers had reached out to voice concerns, saying they felt uncomfortable having demands placed on them and the “do it or else” nature of the messaging failed to recognize the sacrifices the staff had made during the pandemic. 

“I just feel the organization needs to be very careful on how they communicate with front-line workers, how we interact with each other and how workers view leading by example,” the nurse said. She added management is not currently communicating with “kindness and humility,” which is creating a “a problem gaining the trust of the front line.” 

A Las Vegas-based VA employee said she and some of her colleagues are unhappy with the vaccine mandate. One doctor who she works with is planning to quit, she said, as he was not going to allow VA to “make him do something he didn’t want to do, especially if it’s not approved by the [Food and Drug Administration].” 

The FDA has approved every COVID-19 vaccine currently being distributed in the United States as an “emergency use authorization.” While full approval is outstanding, all evidence has shown the vaccines are safe and overwhelmingly successful in preventing significant illness from the virus.  

Some employees are relieved by the mandate. One nurse in Colorado said she is and her colleagues are wondering only what took the department so long to issue it. 

Several union officials have said they will seek to make VA bargain over the vaccine mandate, as some unions have said they also plan to do for President Biden’s broader, less stringent vaccine plan for the rest of the federal workforce. At least some other elements of the federal workforce expressed similar apprehension about the vaccine-or-mask mandate Biden has implemented. Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, said, “Experimental vaccines should be a personal choice with each individual weighting the pros and cons, not a mandate from federal bureaucrats.” 

At VA, management plans to send out two notifications to employees reminding them of their obligations within the next four weeks. Workers will complete a form in which they either check a box certifying they have been vaccinated or claiming an exemption. Those who claim “deeply held religious beliefs” that prevent them from receiving a vaccine will need a sign-off from their supervisor, though they do not have to disclose what those beliefs are. Medical exemptions must stem from the minimal list of valid reasons to avoid the vaccine pre-approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Exempted employees will be required to wear masks at all times when at a VA facility.

All told, about 20,000 VA employees have contracted COVID-19 since the pandemic began and 148 have died from related symptoms. Nearly 13,000 individuals in the VA system have died from the virus. VA has vaccinated more than 300,000 employees, or about 70% of its workforce.