Starting Friday, the Department of Veterans Affairs will require nearly all health care personnel, support staff, volunteers and contractors in the Veterans Health Administration to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. That means almost every one of the 360,000 employees of the VHA will be required to get the vaccine by Oct. 8.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced Thursday that the employees who work under the designations "Hybrid Title 38" and "Title 5" must be vaccinated in the next eight weeks or face disciplinary action.
The personnel include psychologists, pharmacists, social workers, nursing assistants, physical therapists, respiratory therapists, peer specialists, medical support assistants, engineers, housekeepers and other clinical, administrative and infrastructure support employees, according to a VA press release.
In addition, volunteers and contractors who work in VA medical centers or clinics, "visit VHA facilities or otherwise come into contact with VA patients and healthcare workers" must be immunized, the release adds.
"We're now including most VHA employees and volunteers and contractors in the vaccine mandate because it remains the best way to keep veterans safe, especially as the Delta variant spreads across the country," McDonough explained in the release.
"This pandemic is not over and VA must do everything in our power to protect veterans from COVID-19,” he added. “With this expanded mandate, we can once again make -- and keep -- that fundamental promise."
The new mandate expands on one issued last month that required roughly 115,000 workers, known as Title 38 employees -- including physicians, dentists, podiatrists, optometrists, registered nurses, physician assistants, some dental employees and chiropractors, to be vaccinated.
With that July 26 announcement, the VA became the first federal agency requiring workers to get vaccinated.
McDonough said July 27 that roughly 90,000 of all 360,000 VHA employees had not yet gotten their COVID-19 vaccines. Thursday's new mandate would require that nearly all of those remaining be vaccinated, although there are "processes in place" to request a medical or religious exemption.
All others refusing the vaccine are "protected under due process," he said, but could lose their jobs.
"Those in violation of this directive may face disciplinary action up to and including removal from federal service," VA spokesman Terrence Hayes confirmed Thursday.
McDonough said the move was necessary because cases of the illness increased 37% in July -- a result of the highly contagious Delta variant. Four VA employees have died since mid-June, at least three of whom were sickened by the Delta strain; all were unvaccinated.
"Nearly every death from COVID from this day on is apparently preventable," McDonough said.
VA officials said the decision is supported by numerous medical organizations, including the American Hospital Association, American Medical Association, American Nurses Association, American College of Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, Association of American Medical Colleges and National Association for Home Care and Hospice.
COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. have been distributed under a Food and Drug Administration emergency use authorization, beginning last December with shots made by Pfizer and Moderna.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Sunday on Meet the Press that he expects the FDA to issue full approval of the Pfizer vaccine by the end of the month.
VA employees can get their vaccines for free at any VA vaccination site and receive four hours of paid administrative leave after they are fully vaccinated. They also can take uncounted sick leave for side effects, according to the department.
Active coronavirus cases in the VA health system have multiplied five-fold in the last month, from 1,803 on July 12 to 10,101 Thursday. VA medical centers in Texas, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Nevada are seeing a surge in patients, according to data published by the department.
Since the start of the pandemic, 12,950 veterans in the VA health system have died from COVID-19, as have 148 VA employees.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the overall number of Veterans Health Administration employees.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.