VHA Employee Vaccinations Rise Amid Rising COVID Cases and Deaths
The Department of Veterans Affairs sees an increase in employee vaccinations, a month after the agency first announced a mandate of sorts for healthcare workers – and amid an increase in the number of cases in his network.
Since Secretary Denis McDonough announced on July 26 his intention to require the vaccine for healthcare workers, the number of doses administered by VA to employees has more than doubled from a low earlier in the month, a spokesperson for the department told Federal News Network.
McDonough has since expanded the vaccination policy to include almost all healthcare workers, contractors and volunteers within the Veterans Health Administration.
About 9,000 additional employees have received at least one dose of VA since the end of July, the department said.
To date, VA has not started giving booster shots to employees, the spokesperson said.
According to an Aug. 13 directive from the VHA, employees must either be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or apply for a medical or religious exemption from the policy. Those who have approved medical or religious accommodation must undertake in writing to wear a mask.
Employees who have received doses at VA or who have already submitted documentation proving their vaccination do not need to do anything else. Those who have not submitted proof of vaccination must complete a VA form and submit it by the deadline. VA medical facilities must remind their employees of the requirements.
“Compliance with the policy, via vaccination or exemption, is required by October 8, 2021, after which disciplinary action related to non-compliance may be applied,” a VA spokesperson said Wednesday in an email to Federal News Network. “Those who violate this directive may be subject to disciplinary action up to and including dismissal from federal service. “
In total, VHA is seeking proof of vaccination from 384,000 employees, the department said.
In the meantime, the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Federation of Federal Employees, both of whom represent frontline healthcare workers at VA, said they are still negotiating with the department over the details of the vaccination policy.
With negotiations underway – and the prospect of disciplinary action for non-compliance still at least a month for some employees – VA’s current vaccination efforts mirror, in many ways, the programs other agencies are trying to establish. .
“All employees are currently encouraged to certify their immunization status,” the spokesperson said. “To help provide the safest healthcare environment for our country’s veterans, employees who certify that they are not vaccinated, not fully vaccinated, or choose not to provide vaccine information will be tested. weekly on site. “
Testing is not part of VHA’s own guideline, but VA does comply with policies created by the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force, the department said. VA contractors on-site who are not vaccinated or refuse to respond must wear a mask and provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test from the previous three days, the spokesperson said.
Like much of the country, the VA is experiencing its own spike in COVID-19 cases among veterans and employees.
“We have … unfortunately continued to see an increasing number of COVIDs and staff calling sick,” Steven Lieberman, the manager serving as Deputy Health Secretary, said in an Aug. 26 email to employees. by VHA.
As of August 30, 17 VHA employees have died last month due to complications from COVID-19, the department said.
Lieberman said at one point that the department in August experienced the highest number of employee deaths from COVID-19 in a single month since the start of the pandemic.
But the department has since confirmed it was wrong; VHA actually saw the most employee deaths in a month last December, when 28 staff members died from the virus.
Still, VA data provided to Federal News Network shows the department saw an increase in the number of COVID-related deaths among employees in August.
The data comes from Integrated Veterans Services Networks across the country, which report employee deaths to the Veterans Health Administration central office when new information becomes available. Most employees are not treated at VA facilities, which means that the release of some data may be delayed, the department said.
“I understand how upsetting this can be and the heartache that can accompany such losses,” Lieberman said in his email to VA staff. “Please continue to reach out and be there for your colleagues and take advantage of resources such as the Employee Assistance Program when needed. “
The department is currently tracking 13,951 active COVID cases among veterans, employees and others, including 1,163 cases in the HAV workforce. Last month, VA employee cases soared to 300 at the end of July.
VA facilities in Bay Pines, Gainesville, Orlando and Tampa, Fla. Had the most active cases of COVID-19 among employees on Wednesday, the department said. public dashboard.
A total of 177 VA employees have died from complications from COVID-19, according to the department.
VA facilities in New Jersey, Indianapolis, Dallas, Denver and Reno, Nevada, have recorded the highest number of deaths in the workforce, with six employees having died in each location since the start of the pandemic.
VA said the increase in active cases and employee deaths is due to the delta variant, which has become the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the United States.
“As a high reliability organization, the safety of veterans and personnel is the top priority in the provision of health care services and procedures,” the VA spokesperson said. “Since the start of the pandemic, VA has worked to ensure that its staff have access to an adequate level of supplies and equipment, and VA has increased the number of days of supply available from 30 days to 180 days for ensure adequate coverage. “
Citing privacy concerns, the department declined to say whether employees who died from COVID-19 were vaccinated.