Veterans Affairs officials are again mandating masks for all employees and visitors inside most department buildings regardless of their vaccination status following new federal guidance aimed at limiting the spread of the resurgent coronavirus.
The move comes one day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged a return to mask wearing because of the nationwide surge in cases, and two days after department officials announced a mandate for front-line medical employees to get vaccinated against the virus or risk losing their jobs.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said that staff are seeing a surge of cases among patients and staff across the department, and the reluctance of some staff to get vaccinated is potentially jeopardizing the health of visitors and other employees.
“We’re seeing staffing requirements increase as it is,” McDonough told reporters during a press conference on Tuesday. “We’re going to continue to see pressure on the system. And that’s something that I can’t sit and wait to develop for our veterans, especially as we get into the fall with what we expect to be greater COVID infections.”
In a message sent out to all VA staff Wednesday morning, Chief of Staff Tanya Bradsher said that masks will be required for all staff and outside visitors “in areas of substantial or high community transmission.”
As of now, that includes the Washington, D.C. area, meaning that masks will be required at the VA medical center in town and department headquarters. VA facility leaders outside the National Capital Region are being required to “with CDC to see if they work in a high or substantial risk of transmission county and plan accordingly.”
Previously, only unvaccinated individuals were required to wear masks indoors at VA facilities.
Many states have seen sharp increases in infection rates and coronavirus-related deaths in recent weeks as the Delta variant of the virus has fueled another nationwide wave of infections.
Along with the mask mandate and partial staff vaccination requirement, VA leaders are considering an order that all VA employees get vaccinated.
McDonough said he has warned staff that vaccination rates need to increase in order for the department to return to normal operations, but has been disappointed that tens of thousands of staffers remain unvaccinated.
The current vaccine mandate covers only Title 38 personnel, mostly front-line medical workers like doctors and nurses. They have two months to get the vaccine or risk losing their jobs.
VA’s order covers about 115,000 of the department’s approximately 410,000 staff. Of that group, about 70 percent have been vaccinated.
Acting Under Secretary for Health Steven Lieberman said the most common concerns he has heard from unvaccinated employees focus on the side effects of the vaccine.
“They are worried they’re going to get flu-like symptoms and feel sick for a day or two,” he said. “And so I speak to them and say not everybody gets those symptoms, but if you do, it’s still better than the potential of what would happen if you were to get the virus.”
On Tuesday, VA officials announced the death of another staffer from coronavirus complications. In the last 16 months, the department has lost 147 staffers and more than 12,700 patients to virus-related conditions.
But the new vaccine mandates are likely to face significant pushback and possible legal challenges. McDonough said he has spoken to union officials about the change and expects to hear additional concerns from them in coming days.
The largest VA unions have not issued any public statements on the mandate yet.
On Tuesday, President Joe Biden said that he is considering mandating vaccines for millions of federal workers. The White House is expected to make an announcement on the issue on Thursday.
White House officials did announce on Wednesday that they will require masks to be worn by all individuals at indoor locations. The U.S. House has put in place similar rules.
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.