Four months after the deadline for Veterans Affairs workers to be vaccinated against coronavirus, about 40,000 staffers remain unvaccinated but only a few have been fired for refusal, department officials said Tuesday.
The new figures come as Republican lawmakers are renewing their calls to drop the vaccine mandate and allow VA employees to continue to work without penalty even if they ignore the department’s rules.
As of this week, roughly 330,000 workers (89 percent) in the Veterans Health Administration are vaccinated, according to data released by department officials.
Most department health workers were ordered to receive the vaccine regimen (either the two-shot series or the single-shot option) by Oct. 8, with the rest of the department workforce given an extra month and a half (Nov. 22) to meet the mandate.
Last fall, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the vaccine requirement was needed to ensure the safety of staff and patients at department buildings. He also warned that employees who did not meet the deadline could face punishment, including dismissal.
Despite those threats, department officials said that as of Tuesday, “less than a handful of VHA employees have been removed due to noncompliance with the vaccine requirement or noncompliance with safety protocols.”
Officials would not release the specific number of firings.
Of the roughly 40,000 workers who are not vaccinated, almost 37,000 have requested exemptions for medical or religious reasons. Officials said they are still processing “requests for reasonable accommodation” without endangering patient safety.
McDonough has said that while individuals who request religious exemptions will not have the sincerity of their beliefs questioned, they may be reassigned to other positions that do not require direct interaction with veterans or other staffers.
Last week, during a House Veterans’ Affairs hearing on VA workforce issues, multiple Republican members questioned the wisdom of those moves, saying that the department can’t afford to lose qualified employees to unneeded mandates.
“Staffing shortages will only make wait times longer, and that could have life or death consequences for veterans,” said committee ranking member Mike Bost, R-Ill., during the event.
“With the employment market as tight as it is, the last thing we should be doing is interfering with their employees’ personal health decisions, much less firing anyone for exercising their health or religious freedoms.”
Other members questioned whether the mandate could scare off potential recruits to the department. VA officials said they have not seen any indication of that so far.
“What we are trying to do is make sure that we have a safe environment for the veterans,” said Gina Grosso, VA’s assistant secretary for human resources operations.
“And so we are working hard to find a place where [unvaccinated employees] can work. Our sincere desire is not to have to lose anybody.”
At least 21,400 patients connected to VA and 255 VA staffers have died from illnesses linked to COVID-19 in the past two years.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.