Veterans Affairs officials have begun mandatory counseling for employees who have yet to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. Firings could be just a few weeks away.

On Wednesday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced the department has started administrative actions against staffers who failed to meet deadlines for getting the vaccine, despite months of warning about adverse consequences.

McDonough did not provide details on how many of VA’s roughly 420,000 employees remain unvaccinated. About 70 percent have finished mandatory paperwork regarding their status, and the remaining 30 percent will be contacted by supervisors in coming days to complete their forms.

“The process starts with counseling, and if we get to it, it ends with separation,” he told reporters. “But there are a lot of steps along the way.

“We have a responsibility to protect the health of the veterans who are coming to us for their care. And I believe that in certain circumstances, unvaccinated employees pose a serious risk to the health of our veterans.”

Department officials promised to release staff vaccination figures and disciplinary actions in coming weeks. McDonough said he is not concerned about the possible need for large-scale dismissals of employees who fail to get the vaccine, but said leadership has been looking into firing authorities and ways to cover any staffing shortfalls that result from such moves.

The secretary also said VA leaders are reviewing the rules regarding religious and medical exemptions for the vaccine mandate, but emphasized that those would be limited.

“We won’t question the legitimacy of any employee’s religious exemption,” he said. “But we couldn’t allow a non-vaccinated employee to work in [certain] settings.”

That would include not just medical positions but also other jobs involving face-to-face interactions with veterans.

He expects most employee actions related to the vaccines to be settled by the end of 2021.

More than 27,000 VA employees have contracted COVID-19 since the start of the U.S. pandemic in March 2020 and at least 219 have died from complications related to the illness.

Of those deaths, 77 have come since June 1, when the vaccine was widely available both through the department and other outside medical sources.

VA officials announced in late summer they would make vaccines mandatory for department health employees to ensure the safety of patients visiting VA medical centers. The White House later announced plans to require all federal workers to get vaccinated.

More than 15,600 patients connected to the VA health care system have died from complications related to the coronavirus since March 2020, a rate of about 26 individuals a day.

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.

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