The Department of Veterans Affairs is weighing whether to make COVID-19 vaccinations compulsory for employees -- especially those who work in health services who haven't yet received their shots.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough said last week that the department has started offering half-day, paid leave as an incentive for employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19. But the department also is "looking at all these other options" -- to include making immunizations mandatory -- as part of ensuring the safety of all vets and staff.
The move may be necessary as the VA plans to resume full operations at all facilities by the end of the summer, McDonough said during a press conference in Washington, D.C., on June 30.
"My goal has been that by August, we are in a position to make clear that we are providing more care and more benefits than before the pandemic," he said. "Our ability to do that is enhanced by our ability to get more workers vaccinated."
The legality of requiring vaccines as a condition of employment has been hotly debated since the first COVID-19 vaccines were rolled out late last year. The vaccines on the U.S. market, made by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, were approved by the Food and Drug Administration under an emergency use authorization, which says that individuals receiving a dose must be informed of the "option to accept or refuse administration ... and of the consequences of refusing administration of the product."
Some legal scholars have taken this to mean that removing the option and requiring a vaccine is illegal.
But in May, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by at least 116 employees of a Houston hospital who had been suspended as a result of refusing to get vaccinated against the contagious coronavirus.
The plaintiffs argued that Houston Methodist Hospital was "illegally requiring its employees to be injected with an experimental vaccine as a condition of employment," and that the policy violated the Nuremberg Code -- a medical ethics code developed during the post-World War II trials of Nazi war criminals that requires informed consent for patients to participate in medical research and development, according to court documents
U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Hughes disagreed, saying that making vaccines a requirement for employment is not a form of coercion.
"[A plaintiff] can freely choose to accept or refuse a COVID-19 vaccine; however, if she refuses, she will simply need to work somewhere else. If a worker refuses an assignment, changed office, earlier start time, or other directive, he may be properly fired. Every employment includes limits on the worker's behavior in exchange for remuneration. That is all part of the bargain," Hughes said, according to The Associated Press.
Similar lawsuits have been filed in California, North Carolina, New Mexico and elsewhere, but to date, no judge has ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.
Since the beginning of the outbreak, 20,335 VA employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and 145 have died. As of Wednesday, 298,503 VA employees were fully vaccinated, or about 70% of all staff.
McDonough said the VA is considering all options as it reviews efforts to get the remaining workers vaccinated.
He noted that acceptance rates among employees vary widely by location. For example, 85% of the employees at the VA medical center in New Orleans are vaccinated, while in St. Cloud, Minnesota, only 59% of VA hospital workers are vaccinated, he said.
In addition to offering employees four hours off to get their vaccinations, the VA has authorized absence for up to two days for those dealing with side effects without requiring medical certification or docking them sick leave or vacation time.
As concerns rise about the spread of the more contagious delta variant of COVID, however, and with an aim to ensure the safety of veteran patients, all options are on the table, McDonough said.
"Our number one priority is getting veterans through the pandemic," he said. "I believe I am permitted to compel people to get vaccinated. We are taking a look at all of these options."
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime