Vaccine mandates in the federal workforce, including a new one at HHS and the expansion of a previous one at VA, have been largely limited to medical settings, but the justification for those mandates at those departments could apply as well to employees of other agencies in similar roles.
VA previously had required that “Title 38” medical personnel of its Veterans Health Administration be vaccinated; the new directive—which the department previously had hinted at—similarly now gives most other VHA employees eight weeks to become fully vaccinated or else face potential disciplinary action. That encompasses not only “Hybrid Title 38” occupations such as psychologists, nursing assistants and therapists, but also Title 5 occupations such as “engineers, housekeepers and other clinical, administrative and infrastructure support employees who come into contact with VA patients and healthcare workers.”
The new HHS mandate similarly applies to employees of the Indian Health Service and National Institutes of Health “who serve in federally-operated health care and clinical research facilities and interact with, or have the potential to come into contact with, patients.” Vaccination also is now required for members of the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps “as part of medical readiness procedures to prepare for any potential deployment need as emergency responders.”
The VHA has about 370,000 employees—only about a third of whom fell under the earlier mandate—while HHS said its mandate will apply to about 25,000.
The justifications of mandates due to coming into close contact with patients or the potential for deployment for emergencies could apply as well to employees in similar occupations in other agencies ranging from the Bureau of Prisons to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to the Defense Department, where many federal employees work in the medical system for military personnel.
One potential sign was DoD’s recent announcement that it expects to make vaccination mandatory for uniformed personnel starting in mid-September. While there has been no indication so far that the mandate will extend to civilian employees, in many cases they work side by side with military personnel—a mandate for them could be justified on that basis.
Meanwhile, although vaccination mandates in the private sector also largely started with medical settings, they are now increasingly expanding to other industries and occupations. Also, the U.S. Supreme Court last week left in place—by declining to review it—an appeals court decision backing a vaccine mandate in a university setting, a potential precedent in the employment setting since both involve decisions about the safety of large numbers of people.
The appeals court said that even with a mandate in place, affected individuals have options available to them other than being vaccinated, including seeking an exception on religious or medical grounds—while generally being subject to additional safety protocols—or choosing not to attend that university. Those options may be “difficult” but do not amount to the type of coercion prohibited by law, it said.