No Veterans Affairs staffers have been fired yet for refusing the coronavirus vaccine, but the department’s secretary said he is confident the workforce understands the need and potential serious consequences of avoiding the shots.

“The defenses that vaccinations give, even against omicron with its multiple variations, underscores the importance of ensuring everyone gets it,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said during a press conference on Tuesday.

“Since the day I announced this [mandate] last year, I made it clear that I was not going to be in any rush to execute [punishments]. The most important thing was transparency and clear communication with the workforce, because at the end of the day, the goal is vaccines, shots in arms.”

All VA health care workers were required to be vaccinated against the fast-spreading virus last fall, and all federal workers were mandated to get the vaccine by the end of November.

McDonough said as of this week, about 90 percent of the workforce has been vaccinated, with most of the remainder applying for medical or religious waivers. Those requests are still being processed and analyzed, and officials would not say whether any have been granted or denied thus far.

About 3,000 employees — less than 1 percent of the entire department workforce — have not certified their vaccination status or applied for an exemption. McDonough said those individuals will be the first to face the most serious employment consequences, to include possible dismissals.

But thus far, no one has lost their jobs. McDonough said leaders are continuing their internal education campaigns to encourage individuals to get vaccinated, and have seen about 37,000 individuals get their first dose since last fall.

“That strikes me as a pretty meaningful indicator that we’re having an impact,” he said.

When asked if he has concerns that the mandate could be seen as empty without any significant punishments so far, McDonough acknowledged the potential issue but said he is confident that officials are approaching the issue in the proper way.

Last summer, when he announced the vaccine mandate, McDonough framed the policy as a patient confidence issue, saying that veterans and visitors needed to know that staff was doing all they could to make VA medical centers as safe as possible.

This week, more than 14,600 VA health care employees — almost 4 percent of the health care workforce — were unable to work because of covid-related illnesses or exposure. Prior to the last month of surging virus cases, the pandemic high for VA staffers was around 6,000.

At least 243 department workers have died from health issues related to coronavirus since the start of the pandemic in America in March 2020. More than 18,300 veterans and patients in the VA medical system have lost their lives, an average of about 27 individuals a day.

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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