Tens of thousands of Veterans Affairs employees have only a few days or weeks left to get vaccinated against coronavirus or else face discipline for their refusal, including possible firings.
At a press conference on Wednesday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said officials have seen an increase in vaccinations among department employees since senior staff mandated them for health workers in July and President Joe Biden announced a mandate for all federal workers earlier this month.
“The best way to ensure safety for our veterans is to have our personnel vaccinated,” he said. “And so our goal through this process remains to get to 100 percent. If we don’t … we’ll take the steps that we have to.”
According to information released by the department, about 280,000 Veterans Health Administration employees have confirmed to supervisors that they are fully vaccinated or received the first of the two-shot regimen.
That’s just under 74 percent of the agency, slightly more than the 70 percent vaccination rate announced by VA officials in July.
About 35,000 VHA workers have said they still have not taken any steps towards getting the vaccine, and about 65,000 more still haven’t filed needed paperwork to establish their health status. VA officials cautioned that many in that last group may already be vaccinated, but have not yet taken the formal steps to record their status with the department.
For many of the unvaccinated and the unverified employees, the deadline for completing the coronavirus vaccine protocol is the end of next week. Others in the group will have until early October because of the timing of mandate announcements by VA officials during the summer.
McDonough said some of the unvaccinated individuals may be eligible for waivers due to health or religious exemptions, and staff will spend the next few weeks sorting through those specific issues.
Employees not granted waivers who refuse after that review will be subject to “progressive discipline,” which includes counseling and other pre-dismissal interventions.
“The last thing we want to do is have to fire trained personnel,” he said. “So there will be a very clear process implemented by a supervisor and local level, the goal of which is to get people vaccinated.
“At the end of that, if they’ve still chosen to not get vaccinated, they will be separated from federal service.”
VA leaders did not have an estimate how many individuals could be fired as a result of refusals.
Employees in other VA agencies, such as the Veterans Benefits Administration and National Cemetery Administration, have similar vaccination rates but have until Nov. 22 to complete their shots, since their mandate stems from the White House order just announced earlier this month.
VA workers are eligible for up to four hours of paid leave to get the vaccine and two days of sick leave if they experience side effects from the shots.
More than 25,000 VA employees have contracted COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic in America 18 months ago, including more than 5,000 since the start of July. At least 182 have died from complications related to the virus.
Across the VA health care system, more than 327,000 patients and staff have contracted the virus since March 2020, with more than 14,250 deaths.
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.