Pharmacists CJ Ludwig, front, and Chris Elizagaray, back, pull doses of the coronavirus vaccine from vials at a Department of Veterans Affairs vaccination clinic in Kalispell, Montana, on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.

Pharmacists CJ Ludwig, front, and Chris Elizagaray, back, pull doses of the coronavirus vaccine from vials at a Department of Veterans Affairs vaccination clinic in Kalispell, Montana, on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. (Nikki Wentling/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs will require more employees to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, extending the mandate to nearly everyone who works at VA hospitals or visits them.

The department announced the new mandate Thursday. It was expanded to all Title 5 and Hybrid Title 38 employees, which includes psychologists, pharmacists, social workers, nursing assistants, physical therapists, respiratory therapists, peer specialists, medical support assistants, engineers, housekeepers and other administrative and clinical workers who come into contact with patients and health care staff. The mandate also applies to volunteers and contractors.

“We’re now including most [Veterans Health Administration] 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,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said. “This pandemic is not over, and VA must do everything in our power to protect veterans from [the coronavirus]. With this expanded mandate, we can once again make — and keep — that fundamental promise.”

The change goes into effect Friday. Employees will have until Oct. 8 to provide proof of their vaccination to their local VA Occupational Health Office.

McDonough said Thursday on CBS This Morning that the expansion includes 245,000 more employees. Of those, 110,000, or 45%, have not been vaccinated, he said.

The VA was the first federal agency to implement a vaccine mandate when McDonough ordered it on July 26. It applied to about 115,000 employees, including physicians, dentists, podiatrists, optometrists, registered nurses, physician assistants and chiropractors, as well as medical workers who visit VA facilities. Those employees have until Sept. 20 to show their proof of vaccination.

Since the mandate was announced, there’s been an uptick in employees being vaccinated, McDonough said on CBS. About 2,500 employees have been vaccinated since July 26, bringing the total number of vaccinated workers to 302,624. The department employs about 426,000 people in total, including more than 380,000 workers in the Veterans Health Administration.

“Our experience is that it’s been complicated but very manageable,” McDonough said of implementing the mandate. “And it’s leading to an increase in vaccinations.”

Six VA employees have died in the latest surge of the coronavirus delta variant, according to VA data.

The World Health Organization said the delta variant is the most transmissible of the variants identified during the pandemic, and cases are on the rise in the United States. The VA reported 10,101 active cases of the virus Thursday, up about 170% from July 26, when the VA announced its first vaccine mandate.

Deaths among VA patients reached 12,950 Thursday, and 271 of those deaths have occurred in the past 17 days.

Democratic lawmakers voiced their support for the first mandate. Dozens of groups that represent doctors, nurses and other health care workers also supported it and called for mandatory vaccinations of all health care workers in the United States.

McDonough urged all Americans on Thursday to get vaccinated, arguing it was in the best interest of veterans, who are disproportionately affected by the virus.

“The most important thing each of us can do to protect our veterans, whether we work at VA or somewhere else, is get yourself vaccinated,” he said. “That will help our veterans who have complicated health care situations and comorbidities. If you want to protect our veterans, go get vaccinated.”

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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