Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra testifies before Congress in June.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra testifies before Congress in June. J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Second Agency Announces COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate for Some Civilian Employees

Nearly 400,000 feds are now facing a requirement to receive their shots as the Delta variant surges.

The Health and Human Services Department this week became the second federal agency to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for some civilian employees, announcing it will require the shots for its health care workforce. 

The mandate will affect 25,000 employees at HHS’ Indian Health Service and National Institutes of Health serving at federal health care facilities or clinical research sites. The requirement will apply to those who regularly interact, or have the potential to come into contact, with patients. That will include contractors and volunteers, as well as members of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. 

“Our number one goal is the health and safety of the American public, including our federal workforce, and vaccines are the best tool we have to protect people from COVID-19, prevent the spread of the Delta variant, and save lives,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra. “Instructing our HHS health care workforce to get vaccinated will protect our federal workers and the patients and people they serve.”

The announcement follows a similar one last month from the Veterans Affairs Department, which initially rolled out its mandate to 115,000 front-line health care workers. On Thursday, VA expanded that total to an additional 245,000 Veterans Health Administration personnel to include administrative staff, engineers, housekeepers, psychologists, physical therapists and others. 

VA gave employees eight weeks to get the vaccine or prove they already have and sent forms for employees to document their vaccination or claim an exemption. HHS has yet to roll out implementation details, but said it would also allow for religious and medical exemptions. VA has not specified what exactly will happen to employees who decline the vaccine, saying only in a recent memorandum that anyone who fails to certify vaccination or an exemption “may face disciplinary action up to and including removal from federal service.” 

HHS did not respond to an inquiry into its plans for those who refuse to vaccinate. The department noted it already requires health care personnel to receive seasonal flu shots and other "routine vaccinations." Still, the COVID-19 vaccine has become a highly politicized issue despite widespread evidence of its safety and efficacy in preventing severe illness from the virus and many federal workers remain uncomfortable with their employer's demands. Many VA employees who recently spoke to Government Executive expressed apprehension about the mandate, with some planning to seek exemptions or quit. Employees said tension has reached a boiling point between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, with some staff who already received their shots telling those who had not they should lose their jobs.

The Defense Department has joined VA and HHS in requiring the COVID-19 vaccine, but only for members of the military. For the rest of government, employees must either attest that they have been vaccinated or submit to regular testing and constant mask wearing. The Biden administration has told employees that those who lie about their vaccination status could face firing and criminal prosecution.