Roughly 12% of the Department of Veterans Affairs' 380,000 hospital workers have not received their COVID-19 vaccine or told the department they plan to get immunized, according to VA officials.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough issued two separate vaccine mandates. The first, on July 26, requires medical personnel at VA hospitals and clinics, such as doctors and registered nurses, to get vaccinated by next week. The second, released Aug. 13, requires staff members, volunteers and any other worker who interacts with veterans to be inoculated by Oct. 8.
But while 88% of all employees of the Veterans Health Administration, or VHA -- the portion of the VA that oversees all hospitals and clinics -- reported they were fully or partially vaccinated as of Wednesday, 45,600, or 12%, had not completed paperwork attesting they have been vaccinated or that they intend to get an immunization.
During a press conference in Washington on Wednesday, McDonough said the VA is reaching out to these employees, pushing public awareness campaigns and working with the department's union representatives to encourage vaccination.
The VA also is offering four hours of leave to all workers who get vaccinated.
However, incentives will go only so far, McDonough said. Those who decide not to get vaccinated must request a medical or religious waiver or face "progressive discipline" that could end in dismissal.
"This will be a very clear process implemented at the supervisory and local level, the goal of which is to get people vaccinated by educating them," he said. "But at the end of that, if they still have chosen not to get vaccinated or get an exemption, they will be separated from federal service."
McDonough said he didn’t know how many of the more than 45,000 employees have applied or indicated they plan to apply for a waiver.
"We don't have enough clarity yet to see into the data to find out how many such exemptions are being sought," he said.
Because VA employees can get their COVID-19 vaccines either at work or elsewhere, the department is tracking vaccines in two ways. It has asked all employees to complete paperwork saying they have been vaccinated, and it tracks the vaccinations of those in the VA employee health records system.
According to the VA, the number of vaccinated VHA employees has risen by 9% since the initial mandate. Vaccinations are important, McDonough said, because staff absences for COVID-19 have risen sharply in the last eight weeks, putting a strain on VA hospitals and forcing some to cut health services.
The department saw a 272% increase in hospitalizations for COVID-19 this summer, largely due to the Delta variant of the virus, according to McDonough. "It's made our push to vaccinate even more urgent," he said.
More than 328,000 veterans in the VA health system have contracted COVID-19 during the pandemic and 14,254 have died, including 182 employees.
VA employees who do not work in the health system also are required to be vaccinated by Nov. 22 under a deadline set Monday by President Joe Biden.
The VA has fully vaccinated more than 3.8 million people, including veterans, employees, caregivers and eligible family members, with an additional 3.7 million having received their first dose.
As of Wednesday, 313,833 VA employees were vaccinated against COVID-19.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.