HHS orders COVID-19 vaccine for health workers, VA expands mandate

The U.S. Health and Human Services Department announced it will require its employees who provide care or services for patients to get the COVID-19 vaccine, while the Department of Veterans Affairs expanded its virus vaccine mandate to include a wider range of workers and volunteers at its health facilities.

The orders come as several government agencies and large companies have announced similar requirements for employees as the highly contagious delta variant fuels COVID-19 cases and prompts worries about the U.S. economic recovery. 

HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said the new requirement will affect more than 25,000 clinicians, researchers, contractors, trainees and volunteers with the National Institutes of Health, the Indian Health Service, and the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. It applies to employees who regularly interact with patients or whose duties could put workers in contact with patients.

"Requiring our HHS health care workforce to get vaccinated will protect our federal workers, as well as the patients and people they serve," Becerra said in a statement.

HHS has more than 80,000 employees. Those not covered by Becerra's order would fall under President Joe Biden's recent policy change that requires federal workers and contractors to attest to their vaccination status and imposes regular COVID-19 testing and certain workplace restrictions on the unvaccinated. But this is short of a direct order to get vaccinated.

HHS Secretary Becerra Testifies Before Senate On Budget Request

FILE - Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra testifies during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the FY2022 HHS Budget request on June 10, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Employers have broad leeway to require their workers to get vaccinated as a "condition of employment," similar to other rules governing the workplace. Under federal law, workers with religious objections or a medical condition may be entitled to exemptions, as long as that doesn't disrupt the workplace.

The new requirement at HHS will provide for similar medical and religious accommodations. 

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VA Secretary Denis McDonough also announced an expansion to his previously announced COVID-19 vaccine mandate, beginning Friday. The previous order applied to VA health care personnel and the expanded mandate applies to most Veterans Health Administration employees, volunteers and contractors who work in health facilities.

This includes psychologists, pharmacists, social workers, nursing assistants, physical therapists, respiratory therapists, peer specialists, medical support assistants, engineers, housekeepers and other clinical, administrative and infrastructure support employees who come into contact with VA patients and healthcare workers, the department said.

"We’re now including most VHA employees and volunteers and contractors in the vaccine mandate because it remains the best way to keep Veterans safe, especially as the Delta variant spreads across the country," McDonough said in a statement. "This pandemic is not over and VA must do everything in our power to protect Veterans from COVID-19."

While vaccination is nearly universal among physicians, the same can't be said for other people working in health care settings. Facilities such as nursing homes and hospitals are labor-intensive operations relying on support staff for everything from clerical duties to transporting patients, and their vaccination rates often mirror the surrounding communities.

The decision by HHS and the VA follows the recent announcement by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that U.S. service members will be required to get their COVID-19 shots in order to maintain military readiness.

Despite the widespread availability of effective vaccines at no cost to patients, only about half the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. New COVID-19 cases have surged past 100,000 a day, a level not seen since the deadly wave of the fall and winter gained momentum last November.

The hardest hit in this latest wave are states with low levels of vaccination and high resistance to government public health directives. But no area of the country is immune. The delta variant is highly efficient at spreading, allowing it to become the dominant coronavirus strain in the U.S. in a matter of weeks.

HHS officials also noted that the employees affected are already required to get annual flu shots and other routine vaccinations. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not issued full approval for the COVID-19 vaccines, only emergency use authorization. That's thought to be contributing to some people's reluctance to get vaccinated. 

To date, more than 190 million shots have been administered in the U.S. with few reported cases of serious side effects and mounting evidence of effectiveness against virus-related hospitalization and death.

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This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.