Fedweek

Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby at a press briefing on Monday. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III will request a waiver from President Joe Biden to make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for service members, something that could happen sooner with full FDA approval. Image: Susan Walsh/AP/Shutterstock

VA medical personnel late last month were given a mandate to get the Covid-19 vaccine, and while Biden administration officials continue to drop hints about a possible expansion to other federal agencies or occupations, the White House has said nothing definite.

Meanwhile, the Department of Defense announced Monday that all military personnel will be required to get a Covid-19 vaccine. The vaccine will be added to the list of required vaccinations no later than September 15, but that could happen sooner if the FDA approves the vaccine before then, as it is reportedly planning to do. Currently 73 percent of active duty personnel have had at least one vaccine shot, DoD says. The department hopes that announcing that a vaccine mandate is imminent will lead service members to get vaccinated voluntarily – but if they don’t, “eventually we’re going to get to a mandatory sort of regimen and we’ll take care of it then,” said the Pentagon’s press secretary John Kirby.

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While the DoD mandate has no direct bearing on federal civilian personnel, it is part of a more forceful stance from the White House on getting shots in arms. And since the VA medical personnel mandate was announced July 26, federal employees in similar roles at other agencies—such as civilian employees in the DoD health care system for military personnel—have been anticipating that they also would be subject to such a requirement. The VA gave affected employees—whose jobs have required them to continue at their regular duty stations throughout the pandemic—eight weeks to be fully vaccinated or else face potential discipline up to firing.

However, the only formal announcement since then has been for a general policy elsewhere of requiring employees to attest that they are fully vaccinated or else be subject to additional testing, stricter mask wearing and distancing requirements, and additional limits on official travel.

Officials since then have made statements that essentially leave options open, although also notably citing the growing trend among other employers to impose mandates.

For example, in response to a question about a widened mandate, the administration’s COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients pointed to the general policy, saying “we’re doing the right thing to protect the workforce, to protect the individual, their family, and their colleagues, which is rigorous testing, social distancing, and masking.

However, he then added that the mandate at VA is “consistent with a lot of health systems across the country and a growing number of health systems that are requiring vaccination for their healthcare workers who are on the frontlines . . . we will continue to look across the federal government at other areas where requiring vaccines, everyone be vaccinated, may make sense, particularly in the healthcare setting.”

In response to a similar later question he pointedly noted that mandates have been announced by many companies outside the health care field. “We will be looking, across the federal government, in other areas that could require these types of mandates, if you will, for vaccination . . . I think you’re going to see a continued increase in vaccination requirements as people bring employees back to work,” he said.

The VA had said shortly after its initial policy announcement that it was considering expanding its mandate to apply to other persons who regularly come into contact with patients in its systems, such as benefits counselors, but there has been no further word since then on that possibility.

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Meanwhile, to meet the deadline the department set for affected employees, those choosing to get one of the vaccines with a two-shot regimen would have to start soon, given the waiting period between doses and the waiting period after the second dose before being considered fully vaccinated.

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2022 Federal Employees Handbook