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Secretary of Veterans Affairs nominee Denis McDonough speaks during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 27, 2021. The Department of Veterans Affairs announced Monday that it will require  its medical workers to receive coronavirus vaccines.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs nominee Denis McDonough speaks during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 27, 2021. The Department of Veterans Affairs announced Monday that it will require its medical workers to receive coronavirus vaccines. (Sarah Silbiger/AP)

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs announced Monday that it will require its hundreds of thousands of medical workers to receive coronavirus vaccines.

The department is the first federal agency to implement a vaccine mandate. Employees have until Sept. 20 to be fully vaccinated, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement.

“Whenever a veteran or VA employee sets foot into a VA facility, they deserve to know that we have done everything in our power to protect them from [the coronavirus],” McDonough said. “With this mandate, we can once again make — and keep — that fundamental promise.”

President Joe Biden confirmed news of the mandate while speaking in the Oval Office, where he was meeting Monday with Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Iraq’s prime minister. 

“Veterans Affairs is going to, in fact, require that all doctors working in facilities are going to have to be vaccinated,” Biden said.  

The new mandate applies to all Title 38 employees, which includes VA physicians, dentists, podiatrists, optometrists, registered nurses, physician assistants and chiropractors, as well as medical workers who visit VA facilities.

As of Monday, 300,099 department employees were vaccinated against the virus. The department employs about 378,000 people, including 367,000 full-time health care professionals.

Since the start of the pandemic, 146 VA workers have died from the coronavirus. Four employees — all of whom were unvaccinated — died in recent weeks. Three of the deaths were attributed to the coronavirus “delta” variant.

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 3,787 active cases of the coronavirus Monday, up nearly 200% from earlier in the summer. Overall, 12,679 VA patients have died of the virus since the start of the pandemic.

The VA said Monday that there was an outbreak of the virus among unvaccinated employees and trainees at a VA law enforcement training center.

Shortly before the VA issued its mandate Monday, 57 groups representing doctors, nurses and other health care workers issued a joint letter, calling for mandatory vaccinations of all health care workers in the United States.

“Universal vaccination of health care workers is the single most important step health care institutions can do to stop the spread of [the coronavirus],” Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said in a statement. “It is essential for protecting the health of their workers, the safety of their patients and ultimately the health of their communities.”

As cases of the delta variant began to increase last month, McDonough said he was considering a vaccine mandate. At the time, he had just issued a policy offering employees take a half day off from work in exchange for getting vaccinated.

McDonough said then that he had the authority to mandate employees to receive vaccines, but he first wanted to see the outcome of the new policy. 

The VA does not have specific data on the numbers of employees vaccinated by location. Anecdotally, McDonough said 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.

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

AMVETS, a national veterans organization, praised the mandate, calling it a “bold, important step” to improve veterans’ safety. Joe Chenelly, the group’s executive director, said in a statement that the organization has heard from veterans who are choosing to go without health care for fear of getting infected with the coronavirus at a VA hospital or clinic.

“Every VA employee coming into contact with a veteran should be expected to take every measure possible to ensure they are not endangering veterans who are in VA facilities,” he said.

However, Chenelly said he was also concerned about the mandate leading to more staff vacancies across the VA health care system. The workforce grew by 2.6% in 2020, but the department still had about 28,000 vacancies in May, according to publicly available data.

It was unclear Monday about how the department would handle cases in which employees refused to get vaccinated.

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