VA Secretary Denis McDonough said more protections are needed with the Delta variant on the rise.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough said more protections are needed with the Delta variant on the rise. Amanda Andrade-Rhoades / AP

VA Adds 245K Employees to COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate

The vast majority of Veterans Health Administration staff must receive the shots or risk being fired.

The lone federal agency to require COVID-19 vaccines for civilian employees so far is expanding the mandate, saying stronger protective measures are needed given the spread of the Delta variant. 

The Veterans Affairs Department will more than triple the number of employees who must receive the vaccine, bringing the total to 360,000. VA originally required just its frontline health care staff—those hired under Title 38 of the U.S. Code—to be inoculated, which amounted to about 115,000 workers. 

The mandate will now include Title Five employees within the Veterans Health Administration—such as housekeepers, engineers and administrative staff—and health care providers such as psychologists, pharmacists, physical therapists, nursing assistants and others in “Hybrid Title 38” positions. 

“We’re now including most VHA employees and volunteers and contractors in the vaccine mandate because it remains the best way to keep veterans safe, especially as the Delta variant spreads across the country,” Secretary Denis McDonough said. “This pandemic is not over and VA must do everything in our power to protect veterans from COVID-19. With this expanded mandate, we can once again make—and keep—that fundamental promise.”

Employees impacted by the new mandate will have eight weeks to get the vaccine or prove they already have. The department has already sent notices to the first crop of employees in the initial mandate 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. 

About 70% of the individuals in the original group of 115,000 were already vaccinated, though McDonough said on Thursday that number has ticked up since the mandate announcement. VA is aware of vaccinations for only about 55% of the new group, a spokesman said. That leaves nearly 150,000 total employees who must now get vaccinated or potentially face consequences. 

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.” Mark Ballestoros, a VA spokesman, said last month 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.”

Many VA employees who recently spoke to Government Executive expressed apprehension about the mandate, with some planning to seek exemptions or quit. Those workers begrudged VA for taking away their choice. 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. 

While VA's employee unions plan to bargain over the implementation of the policy, the department has already set the wheels in motion. Employees will have to 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.

Only the military has so far joined VA in requiring the COVID-19 vaccine. 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.