The Department of Veterans Affairs on Monday announced that it will require many of its frontline medical workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, making it the first federal agency to mandate inoculations.
The move comes as the highly contagious delta variant spreads nationwide. The news was first reported by the New York Times.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said the agency is mandating vaccines "because it’s the best way to keep Veterans safe, especially as the Delta variant spreads across the country."
"Whenever a Veteran or VA employee sets foot in a VA facility, they deserve to know that we have done everything in our power to protect them from COVID-19. With this mandate, we can once again make — and keep — that fundamental promise," McDonough said in a statement.
McDonough told the Times that this move is "the best way to keep our veterans safe, full stop," and noted that it will apply to "the most patient-facing" employees, including physicians, dentists, optometrists, registered nurses, physician assistants and chiropractors.
Beginning Wednesday, employees will have eight weeks to be fully vaccinated, the agency said in a statement.
The move from the VA came on the same day that more than 50 major medical organizations called for mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations of U.S. health care workers.
The joint statement was issued by 56 groups representing doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other health care employees. The organizations include the American Medical Association, American Nursing Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and American Public Health Association.
The statement asserted that getting vaccinated “is the logical fulfillment of the ethical commitment of all health care workers to put patients as well as residents of long-term care facilities first.”
“As we move towards full FDA approval of the currently available vaccines, all health care workers should get vaccinated for their own health, and to protect their colleagues, families, residents of long-term care facilities and patients,” the statement says. “This is especially necessary to protect those who are vulnerable, including unvaccinated children and the immunocompromised.”
The urgent call comes as coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths are on the rise again, predominantly among the unvaccinated. Fueled by the more contagious delta variant, the seven-day average for new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. as of Friday had climbed to 47,455 — four times higher than it was a month earlier. Meanwhile, just 49% of Americans are fully vaccinated, and 30 states have immunized less than half their populations.
President Joe Biden confirmed the policy in a sit-down meeting later Monday afternoon with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in the Oval Office.
“These actions, in our view, are meant to keep patients and employees safe and in fact, I expect our own federal health care providers may look at similar requirements as they do with other vaccines,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in support of the decision.
In recent weeks, the agency said, VA lost four employees to COVID-19, all of whom were unvaccinated; at least three were due to the delta variant.
Employees can receive four hours of paid leave after proving they have been vaccinated.