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Essential workers in phase 1b of the U.S. military's coronavirus vaccination plan include Department of Defense Education Activity teachers, child and youth service workers, school support staff, shipyard workers, commissary staff and food service workers.
Essential workers in phase 1b of the U.S. military's coronavirus vaccination plan include Department of Defense Education Activity teachers, child and youth service workers, school support staff, shipyard workers, commissary staff and food service workers. (Yosselin Perla/U.S. Air Force)

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WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs will begin vaccinating an expanded population of veterans, spouses and caregivers May 1, the VA secretary said Thursday.

A bill signed into law on Wednesday requires the department to offer vaccines to all veterans, regardless of whether they’re eligible for VA health care, as well as their spouses and caregivers. VA Secretary Denis McDonough told lawmakers Thursday that vaccines should be widely available to that group starting in May. He attributed the delay to a lack of vaccine doses.

“The longest pole in this tent is supply,” McDonough said. “We’re consuming the supply as soon as we get it.”

The Saves Lives Act grew the population that the VA is responsible for vaccinating from about 9 million to 33 million. The department will need an increase of about 400,000 doses each week to vaccinate everyone.

As of Thursday, the department had fully vaccinated 1.6 million people, prioritizing 6 million veterans who actively use VA health care.

In addition to getting more doses, the VA must establish a system to report the vaccinations to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That process is straightforward when the VA reports veterans in its system, but the VA needs to “build the capacity” for the expanded population, he said. The department is also working on an outreach strategy for the newly eligible people.

The nationwide rollout isn’t likely until May, but some veterans who aren’t enrolled into the VA were able to schedule appointments Thursday because of the availability of vaccines in their areas, McDonough said.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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