VA health care personnel latest to be required to get COVID-19 vaccine

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said Monday it is requiring COVID-19 vaccines for health

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said Monday it is requiring COVID-19 vaccines for health care personnel who work in or visit Veterans Health Administration facilities, making the federal agency the latest to mandate vaccines for health care workers.

The news comes on the same day that more than 50 national health care organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association, issued a joint statement in support of COVID-19 vaccine mandates for all workers in health and long-term care.

Three health systems with employees in Michigan — Henry Ford Health System, Trinity Health and OSF HealthCare — previously announced they are mandating COVID-19 vaccines for their workers. Henry Ford Health System alone has 33,000 employees, of which just over 70% had their first dose of vaccine, officials said last week.

More: Henry Ford Health System COO: Required employee COVID-19 vaccines is ‘right thing to do’

More: Trinity Health to require all staff and contractors to get COVID-19 vaccine

Michigan has numerous VA medical centers, outpatient clinics and community based outpatient clinics, with medical centers in Ann Arbor, Battle Creek, Detroit, Iron Mountain and Saginaw, according to its location listing online.

The COVID-19 vaccine requirement is for Title 38 VA health care personnel, including physicians, dentists, podiatrists, optometrists, registered nurses, physician assistants, expanded-function dental auxiliaries and chiropractors, according to a release.

Employees will have eight weeks to be fully vaccinated. Medical or religious exemptions will be recognized with proper documentation. Those granted exemptions must use personal protective equipment and submit for COVID-19 testing.

Those who refuse may face disciplinary action, up to and including removal from federal service, VA spokesman Gary Kunich said.

“We’re mandating vaccines for Title 38 employees because it’s the best way to keep veterans safe, especially as the delta variant spreads across the country,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said. “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.”

Kunich said the requirement covers more than 115,000 VA health care workers nationally. He did not know how many of these health care workers are in Michigan or how many of them already have been vaccinated.

Kunich said the current fully-vaccinated rate for Veterans Health Administration employees is 69.5% There are 7,091 VA employees in Michigan who are fully vaccinated, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs COVID-19 National Summary. Employees can include those in health care, but encompasses all staff.

Kunich said the policy is very similar to a directive last year that requires all health care personnel in VHA to be vaccinated annually against influenza.

The VA said it lost four employees to the virus in recent weeks, all of whom were unvaccinated. At least three died because of the delta variant, a mutation that originated in India and is the predominant variant in U.S. cases currently.

More: VP Kamala Harris urges vaccination in Michigan: ‘This virus does not care who you voted for’

Federal, state and local health officials are closely watching the spread of the delta variant, as cases, hospitalizations and deaths rise nationally, particularly among the unvaccinated and in areas and states with low vaccination rates.

Kenya Meriedy, a nurse from Get Ready Vaccine, prepares vaccines May 5, 2021.

The health care organizations’ joint statement about health care and long-term care employers requiring workers receive the vaccine “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 and take all steps necessary to ensure their health and well-being.”

It points out that many health care and long-term care organizations already require other vaccinations, such as influenza, hepatitis B and pertussis.

“As the health care community leads the way in requiring vaccines for our employees, we hope all other employers across the country will follow our lead and implement effective policies to encourage vaccination,” according to the statement. “The health and safety of U.S. workers, families, communities and the nation depends on it.”

In mid-July, the AARP said just 6% of Michigan nursing homes met an industry benchmark of having at least 75% of staff fully vaccinated, according to the group’s nursing home COVID-19 dashboard.

Nationally, it stated, 56% of health care workers and about 78% of residents in nursing homes were fully vaccinated as of the week ending June 20. In Michigan, 46.9% of staff and 74.5% of residents have been fully vaccinated, according to the group.

“While we are seeing lower numbers of cases and deaths than in previous reports, we need to continue monitoring the latest information on vaccination rates,” said Paula Cunningham, AARP state director.

“Residents and staff of nursing homes were devastated by this virus and we can’t let that happen again. We must remain vigilant and redouble efforts to encourage residents and staff in long-term care facilities to get a free COVID vaccine to protect themselves, their family and their community,” she said.

Members of SEIU and community members gathered on East Grand Boulevard on Thursday, June 18, 2020 to pay respects to the 1,600 nursing home residents and Twelve staff members who died from the COVID-19 virus. Nineteen hundred purple flags were placed at the site to represent those who passed from the virus. Manson McCain took a knee during a moment of silence.

Earlier this month, there were protests outside Henry Ford Health System and Trinity Health hospitals regarding their COVID-19 vaccine mandates for employees.

But hospital and health systems aren’t alone in requiring employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Officials in California and New York City announced that government employees in those locations will be required to get vaccinated or get regularly tested for COVID-19.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom said on Twitter that his state “will have the strongest state vaccine verification system in the US and will require state employees & healthcare workers to provide proof of vaccination — or get tested regularly.” 

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Twitter the delta variant “is deadly and this city is taking it seriously.” Employees who don’t provide proof of vaccination will have to submit to weekly COVID-19 testing, he said in his tweet.

In Detroit, vaccinations are not a condition of employment, but any employee reporting to a work site is required to be tested once every two weeks if they are unvaccinated, said John Roach, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s spokesman.

Roach said the current known vaccination rate for city employees is about 51% “but that only includes those who have been vaccinated through our programs and locations” and others could have been vaccinated elsewhere. He said the positivity rate for city employees, based on this testing, currently is less than 1%.

Free Press staff writer Kristen Jordan Shamus contributed to this report.

Contact Christina Hall: [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @challreporter.

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