Amidst the spread of the Delta variant and ongoing vaccine hesitancy in large swaths of the country, some companies and state governments have changed their approach from vaccination persuasion to vaccine mandates. The Biden administration has so far been reluctant to broadly require vaccination, even among the federal workforce, despite less than half (49 percent) of eligible Americans being fully vaccinated. On Monday, the Department of Veterans Affairs took steps on its own, announcing it would require vaccination for its frontline health workers, making it the first federal agency to do so.
The VA’s vaccination rate is roughly 70 percent, placing it well above the national average, but officials say still well short of the level needed to snuff out the virus and keep patients safe. Under the new requirements, most patient-facing health care workers—including doctors, dentists, registered nurses, physician assistants, and some specialists—will have eight weeks from Wednesday to get fully inoculated or face penalties that include possible removal from their positions, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said Monday. Employees will also be able to have medical or religious exemptions considered.
The VA’s move comes as New York City and and the state of California issued vaccine mandates for more generalized government employees. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Monday that municipal employees, some 340,000 city workers, including police officers and teachers, would be required to be vaccinated by the time school reopens in September or submit to weekly testing. California Governor Gavin Newsome announced a similar measure would go into effect requiring all state employees—in addition to on-site public and private health care workers—to be vaccinated by August 23.
The new mandate at the VA “reflects a growing consensus among private sector employers, health care centers, and state and local governments to test the legal waters on vaccine requirements as cases rise sharply around the nation,” the New York Times notes. “Scores of hospitals and health care systems have compelled their employees to get vaccines, and recent court decisions have upheld employers’ rights to require vaccinations. In June, a federal judge in Texas dismissed a lawsuit brought by employees of Houston Methodist Hospital who challenged the hospital’s coronavirus vaccination requirement. Last week, a federal judge ruled that Indiana University could require students to be vaccinated as well.”