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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 – About 10% of employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs have requested an exception to the federal policy that government workers must be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The VA has one of the lowest vaccination rates among all federal agencies. According to data released Monday by the Office of Management and Budget, only one agency – the Social Security Administration – has a lower rate than the VA.

As of last week, 87.8% of the VA’s 426,000 employees had received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. About 52,000 haven’t gotten any shots.

VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes said Tuesday that about 10% of employees, or 42,600 people, have requested a medical or religious exception. The remaining employees haven’t complied with the policy to share their vaccination status. Those workers are going through a disciplinary process, which begins with counseling, Hayes said.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough said during a news conference earlier this month that, in most cases, the exception requests would not be questioned. The VA will only deny requests in instances where there aren’t enough vaccinated health care workers to treat veterans, he said.

“There are certain areas in the administration of health care – oncology, intensive care, spinal cord injury facilities, community living centers – where it’s possible the concentration of religious exceptions reaches a level that we can’t assure veterans we’ve done everything we can to ensure their safety because not enough staff are vaccinated,” McDonough said. “If that’s the case, we have no choice but to deny the religious exception.”

If their exception requests are denied, employees will have a “reasonable timeframe” to be vaccinated and come into compliance, Hayes said.

The deadline for all federal workers to be vaccinated was Nov. 22. A spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget said Monday that 96.5% of the federal workforce had complied. Some employees had begun the disciplinary process, but any suspensions or removals won’t occur until 2022, the spokesman said.

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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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