Veterans Affairs officials will hold off on disciplinary action against non-medical staffers who have not yet received the COVID-19 vaccine in light of a federal court ruling last week questioning the legality of the mandate, according to an internal memo from the secretary sent out to staff on Monday and obtained by Military Times.
However, health care workers within the VA system aren’t covered by the court order, and can still be transferred or fired for refusing the vaccine.
“We will continue to enforce the vaccine requirement for those employees, such as psychologists, pharmacists, social workers, nursing assistants, physical therapists, respiratory therapists, peer specialists … [and] VA volunteers in similar roles,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough wrote in the message to staffers.
“This means that any [Veterans Health Administration] employee or volunteer who works in VHA facilities, visits VHA facilities, or provides direct care to those we serve is still required to be fully vaccinated or have an approved exception and comply with workplace safety protocols.”
At issue is a decision from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas on Friday which blocked a White House mandate from last September for all federal workers to get the vaccine. Biden administration officials have already appealed the decision.
While that legal fight continues, McDonough said that officials will pause implementation and enforcement of the vaccinate mandate for non-medical employees.
“This means that we will hold on processing vaccine exception requests, implementing discipline for noncompliance with the vaccine requirement and requiring job applicants for roles other than VHA health care positions to be fully vaccinated,” he wrote.
But he also added that medical personnel not covered in the court order would not be granted the same pause, and the decision would have “no impact on other safety protocols, meaning that masking, physical distancing, testing, travel and quarantine requirements are still in effect.”
According to the latest department data, about 11 percent of VA’s workforce remains unvaccinated or has not yet reported their vaccination status. That’s almost 55,000 workers across the department’s medical centers, benefits offices and cemetery locations.
Although the deadline for vaccinations was set for last fall, no employees have been fired or dismissed so far for failing to comply with the mandate.
McDonough last week told reporters that discipline will come for individuals who continue to refuse to follow the federal order. But rather than focusing on firings, department leaders have been working to educate employees about the importance of the vaccine for public health and facility safety.
In his message to the workforce on Monday, he reiterated that approach.
“Ensuring the health and safety of our workforce and the veterans we serve is my highest priority,” he said. “The best way to protect you, your families, your colleagues and veterans from all variants of COVID-19 — including Omicron — is to get the vaccine and any recommended additional doses and booster shots, which provide strong protection against infection, hospitalization and death.”
Vaccines and booster shots are available to staff for free through the VA health care system.
More than 55,000 VA employees have contracted coronavirus since the start of the pandemic in the United States in March 2020, and at least 243 have died from complications related to the illness.
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.