After Deadline, VA and DoD Middle of the Pack for COVID-19 Vaccinations, White House Says

U.S. service members receive the COVID-19 vaccine
U.S. service members receive the COVID-19 vaccine aboard Marine Corps Air Station Miramar on Jan 29, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Leilani Cervantes)

As the deadline passed this week for federal employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, nearly 88% of Veterans Affairs employees and 93% of Defense Department employees had received at least one shot, while an additional 10% of VA and 3% of DoD workers have requested or received medical or religious exemptions, the White House said.

Data released Wednesday by the Biden administration showed that, of 24 federal departments or agencies, the VA ranked 10th and the DoD 13th in compliance for meeting the Nov. 22 deadline set by President Joe Biden in September.

According to the White House, nearly 97% of all federal employees have received at least one dose of the vaccine or asked for an exemption -- a data point the administration referred to as "compliance" with the requirement, even though patients are not considered fully vaccinated until two weeks after they receive their final shot.

White House officials said the federal government, which employs 3.5 million people, achieved high vaccination rates "without disruptions to critical services people depend on."

"As the successful implementation of this requirement across the Federal Government has shown, these requirements work: they increase vaccination rates -- leading to a safer, more productive, and efficient workforce," officials wrote in a release.

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The figures released by the White House on Wednesday include active-duty military personnel, who have faced varying deadlines depending on their service branch. The vaccination deadline for the Air Force was Nov. 2, while the Marine Corps and Navy must be vaccinated by Nov. 28.

Active-duty Army soldiers face a Dec. 8 deadline.

DoD officials on Wednesday declined to parse out the percentage of civilian employees known to have complied with the mandate, but did say that 392,546 workers have reported they have received at least one dose, including 341,836 who are fully vaccinated.

While those figures seem significant, they translate into a paltry 51% vaccination rate, given that the department is the largest federal employer, with 762,398 employees in the U.S. and overseas as of Sept. 30.

Seventy percent of all eligible Americans have been vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

DoD spokesman Army Maj. Charlie Dietz warned against drawing conclusions that the DoD compliance rates are actually that low.

"The DoD federal employee compliance and vaccination data includes all civilian and active-duty employees who have received vaccinations through DoD providers or self-reported that they had been vaccinated," Dietz said. "As we continue to process the incoming data, DoD will provide further updates on DoD civilian vaccination rates."

According to a memo issued Oct. 29 by Undersecretary of Defense Gilbert Cisneros, DoD civilian employees who are not fully vaccinated, including those with medical or religious exemptions, must begin weekly testing for COVID-19, and those who work remotely must be tested within 72 hours of entering any DoD facility.

Those who refuse to be vaccinated or provide proof can lose their jobs: They first will be counseled, then suspended without pay and eventually removed from federal service if they haven't complied or gotten an exemption, according to Cisneros.

The VA, which required the majority of its employees to be vaccinated by Oct. 8, has started the disciplinary process for some employees, which could take up to three months to complete.

No one has been fired, and the department also is processing medical waivers and religious exemptions, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said Nov. 18.

McDonough added that he anticipates 5.6% of Veterans Health Administration employees to request religious waivers, based on the number who sought an exemption for the flu vaccine in late 2020; he said the department will not question them.

He noted, however, that employees who work in high-risk environments -- intensive-care units, spinal cord injury centers and nursing homes -- will undergo stricter requirements for being vaccinated and face disciplinary action if they don't comply.

"The goal is vaccination, not relief of duty," McDonough said during a press conference in Washington, D.C.

There have been nearly 29,000 cases of COVID-19 among VA employees, and 242 have died, as of Wednesday.

Within the DoD, 97,327 civilian employees and contractors have had the disease, and 499 have died.

Across all federal departments and agencies, the Agency for International Development had the highest vaccine rate, with 97.8% having at least one dose, while the Agriculture Department had the lowest, at 86.1%, according to the administration.

The White House is encouraging all who failed to meet the vaccine deadline to get vaccinated.

"This week's deadline wasn't an end point. For those employees who are not yet in compliance, agencies are beginning a period of education and counseling, followed by additional enforcement steps, consistent with guidance from the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force and the Office of Personnel Management," the announcement stated.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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