In his first hearing before the House Veterans Affairs Committee Thursday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the department is "building out capacity" to ensure that it can meet reporting requirements and accommodate a fourfold increase in the number of veterans eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine at VA.
President Joe Biden signed the Save Lives Act Wednesday, which allows VA to vaccinate all veterans, veteran spouses, caregivers and Civilian Health and Medical Program recipients, regardless of VA eligibility.
McDonough said some veterans not enrolled in VA care were able to get their jab as early as Thursday under the Save Lives Act.
But VA leaders want to ensure they have the resources to vaccinate all veterans and non-vets who are enrolled, and are working to determine how they can get more doses.
"The longest pole in the tent is supply. We are consuming the supply as soon as we get it, and so we are very focused on May 1 to begin the period when everybody can access the system," McDonough said.
As of Thursday, VA had administered 3,851,556 vaccine doses to veterans and employees and has vaccinated nearly 1.6 million individuals fully.
Under the new law, veterans enrolled in VA care will continue to get priority, but the vaccine will be made available to veterans who haven't gotten it elsewhere.
VA currently receives roughly 200,000 doses of vaccine each week in the Pfizer and Moderna variants, and estimates it will need at least 100,000 additional doses per week to expand vaccinations to the 3 million veterans who are enrolled in VA health care, but don't use the system.
It will need an additional 300,000 vaccines on top of that to expand coverage to everyone eligible under the new law.
McDonough recommended that veterans reach out to their VA medical centers to learn about vaccine eligibility and distribution. VA announced Wednesday that it is rolling out pilot programs at select medical centers through the end of April to work out its processes for vaccinating non-enrolled individuals.
The secretary said the department would be "very concise and exceedingly aggressive" in its execution of the law, and added that VA will launch an aggressive awareness campaign to inform veterans of this new benefit. That campaign will include mail and email campaigns, social media posts and outreach through veterans service organizations.
The department also plans to use VEText, its texting program to reach former service members.
"VEText has worked exceedingly well with vets of every generation. There's some sense that older veterans are not tech savvy in this way. This is not what we are experiencing with VEText. It's been a very effective tool," McDonough said.
VA has recorded 240,158 cases of the coronavirus among veterans, employees and other patients in the department's system since the beginning of the pandemic. These numbers do not include spouses and caregivers. To date, 11,258 have died, including 136 VA employees.
Hospitalizations are down to lows not seen since last summer: 3,237 patients were being treated in VA medical centers as of Thursday. In a surge last October, cases in VA hospitals topped 4,500.
Roughly 9% of the U.S. population, or 30.1 million people, have tested positive for COVID since the outbreak began, according to Johns Hopkins University.