WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs is offering employees a half-day off work in exchange for getting vaccinated against the coronavirus, and Secretary Denis McDonough is considering mandating vaccines for staff if the numbers don’t improve, he said.  

As of Thursday, 298,387 employees were fully vaccinated against the virus. The department employs about 375,000 people. McDonough said during a news conference Wednesday that he has the authority to mandate employees to receive vaccines, but he first wants to see the outcome of the new policy allowing vaccinated staff members a half-day off.  

The issue is made more urgent by the increase in cases of the coronavirus “delta” variant, McDonough said. 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.  

“Given what we’re witnessing with the delta variant across the globe, it would be negligent to not be considering the full range of opportunities that we have to ensure that we’re taking every step possible to protect our veterans,” he said.  

The VA does not have specific data on the numbers of employees vaccinated by location. Anecdotally, McDonough said that VA facilities with the highest rates of employee vaccination were about 85% vaccinated. That includes the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System in New Orleans, which was an epicenter of the virus early in the pandemic.  

On the lower side, fewer than 60% of staff at some VA facilities were vaccinated, including the St. Cloud VA Health Care System in Minnesota. McDonough said he would be pushing more staff to get vaccinated over the next month. 

“My goal has been that by August, we’re in a position to provide more care and benefits than before the pandemic,” McDonough said. “Our ability to do that is enhanced by getting more of our personnel vaccinated.”  

McDonough also encouraged other non-veterans to get vaccinated, promoting it as a way to help veterans. Because of military-related conditions and injuries, veterans are more likely to have underlying health issues that make them more at risk for serious illness, he said.  

“The bottom line is, every non-veteran that gets vaccinated could help save a veteran’s life,” he said.  

As with the rest of the United States, the VA has seen a significant reduction in demand for vaccines in recent months, McDonough said. President Joe Biden is expected to fall short of his goal to have 70% of the population at least partially vaccinated by July 4.  

Last month, McDonough traveled to Alabama, Florida and Louisiana to speak about the importance of being vaccinated against the coronavirus. The department is trying to “meet people where they are” with doses, he said.  

The department recently administered vaccines to people in Louisiana who remained in shelters after evacuating from hurricanes last year. The agency is also on site to offer vaccines to people at cooling centers in the Pacific Northwest, which is dealing with an intense heat wave.  

The VA also shipped 5,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to the Philippines for veterans, their spouses and caregivers.  

“Essentially, every person dying from COVID right now is unvaccinated,” McDonough said. “Which means that from this day forward, every COVID death is preventable. That’s our top priority – shot by shot, arm by arm.” 

Twitter: @nikkiwentling  

The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C. is shown in this undated file photo.

The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C. is shown in this undated file photo. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)

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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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