Veterans Affairs employees who refuse to get the coronavirus vaccine likely won’t be fired before the end of the year, but they could face other punishment before then.

On Wednesday, following testimony before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said his staff is still focused for the moment on a few thousand department workers who have yet to formally report whether or not they have gotten the vaccine.

“Our counseling and education efforts are working, and we’ll continue those,” he told Military Times. “We anticipate getting to the next level of just disciplinary process with people sometime probably after the holidays.”

Last month, the Office of Management and Budget reported that about 88 percent of VA’s 426,000-plus staffers were fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

That’s the second lowest rate of any federal agency, despite many VA health care workers facing earlier deadlines than their government peers to complete the vaccine regimen.

McDonough said he has seen improvements in those numbers as VA leaders meet with staffers to explain the mandate, the science behind the vaccine and the potential job ramifications of refusal.

All federal workers were required to be vaccinated by Nov. 22. As of this week, about 92 percent of those individuals had complied, with most of the rest awaiting rulings on their request for exemptions on health or religious reasons.

Earlier this week, officials from the Office of Management and Budget announced that they would postpone most negative job actions against employees refusing vaccines until early 2022.

VA health workers who faced earlier deadlines for their vaccines would not be covered in that OMB decision, but McDonough said he would defer any firings for now.

McDonough has said that VA will honor religious objections to the vaccine mandate, but will not allow those individuals to keep working in jobs that directly interact with veterans because of the potential safety issues involved. He has also insisted that the vaccine mandate will not jeopardize staffing levels for the department overall.

About 42,000 of the roughly 52,000 unvaccinated VA employees have requested some type of waiver to avoid getting the vaccine.

During his testimony, McDonough said that department officials are preparing for the possibility of another surge in coronavirus cases this winter, based on increases in recent weeks.

“I promise you this: We will learn from everything we’ve done over the past 20 months to meet this moment,” he said. “We will learn from last year to prepare for next year. We’ll see veterans through this surge and all of those coming challenges.”

More than 29,000 department employees have contracted the virus since the U.S. pandemic began in March 2020. At least 232 have died, according to the latest VA data.

More than 386,000 patients in VA care have contracted the virus over the course of the pandemic and more than 16,800 have died from complications related to the illness. Of those fatalities, about 4,000 have come since mid-June, after vaccines had been widely available throughout the country for several months.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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