WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs on Monday became the first major federal agency to require health care workers to get COVID-19 vaccines, as the aggressive delta variant spreads across the nation and some communities report troubling increases in hospitalizations among unvaccinated people.
The VA's move came on a day when nearly 60 leading medical and health care organizations issued a call for health care facilities to require their workers to get vaccinated.
“With more than 300 million doses administered in the United States and nearly 4 billion doses administered worldwide, we know the vaccines are safe and highly effective at preventing severe illness and death from COVID-19," Dr. Susan Bailey, immediate past president of the American Medical Association, said in a statement. “Increased vaccinations among health care personnel will not only reduce the spread of COVID-19 but also reduce the harmful toll this virus is taking within the health care workforce and those we are striving to serve.”
Although vaccination among physicians is nearly universal — 96% according to an AMA survey — that's not the case for many other people working at health care facilities. In nursing homes, only about 60% of staffers are vaccinated, compared with about 80% of residents, according to recent numbers from Medicare. And COVID-19 cases are rising.
At the VA, vaccines will now be mandatory for certain medical personnel — including physicians, dentists, podiatrists, optometrists, registered nurses, physician assistants and others who work in departmental facilities or provide direct care to veterans, said VA Secretary Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough.
Employees will have eight weeks to get vaccinated.
"It’s the best way to keep veterans safe, especially as the delta variant spreads across the country,” McDonough said in a statement. “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,” he added.
In addition to the AMA, the medical and health care groups calling for mandatory vaccines for health workers included the American Academy of Nursing, the American Public Health Association, the American Pharmacists Association and, for the first time, a nursing home industry group. LeadingAge, which represents nonprofit nursing homes and elder care facilities, had previously advocated educating nursing home employees about the benefits of getting their shots. Also joining the call was the National Medical Association, the leading professional group representing Black physicians.
“Unfortunately, many health care and long-term care personnel remain unvaccinated,” the groups said in a statement. “We stand with the growing number of experts and institutions that support the requirement for universal vaccination of health workers.”
It was unclear what would happen to VA employees who refuse to be vaccinated. The longstanding policy in the health care industry is for staff to stay up-to-date with vaccinations, such as annual flu shots. However, a general rule is to allow exceptions for medical reasons, such as known allergies.
One complicating factor with the COVID-19 vaccines is that they have yet to win full approval from the Food and Drug Administration, and continue to be provided under emergency use authorization. The lack of a full approval has fed into hesitancy among some people.
However, the emergency approval process didn’t skip the extensive testing required of any vaccine. Of the three manufacturers of vaccines approved in the U.S., Pfizer and Moderna have applied for full approval, and a Pfizer decision is expected soon.
And the COVID-19 vaccines were not brewed overnight, either. Indeed, they were the fruit of more than 10 years of behind-the-scenes research and huge injections of funding that laid the groundwork for them to be rolled out so quickly.
Katie Smith Sloan, CEO of LeadingAge, said it's time go beyond the power of persuasion. "As COVID-19 variants emerge and proliferate, we can start saving more lives today by ensuring staff are fully vaccinated,” she said.