• September 19, 2021

Exclusive: Agencies That Required Vaccines Before Biden’s Push See Early Success

 Exclusive: Agencies That Required Vaccines Before Biden’s Push See Early Success

WASHINGTON — President Biden’s new coronavirus vaccination mandates have prompted some backlash, but the two federal departments that already require vaccinations say their actions are doing what they intended: getting more shots in arms.

Since the Pentagon announced last month that active-duty military personnel would be required to be vaccinated, the percentage of service members with at least one shot has risen to 83 percent from 76 percent, according to Defense Department data.

At the Department of Veterans Affairs, which issued a vaccine mandate for its 115,000 frontline health care workers seven weeks ago, 82 percent of those employees are now fully vaccinated, up from 77 percent, and the number of shots it has given to all of its workers has more than doubled since early July, said Terrence Hayes, a spokesman for the department.

The increases elude the goals of getting virtually everyone at both agencies inoculated, but at least in the military, where troops have long been used to taking orders and avoiding voluntary actions, the numbers are expected to rise. Each service branch is working through its enforcement plan.

“The secretary of defense is giving commanders across the force the freedom to work through the vaccination process how they best see fit,” said Charlie Dietz, a Pentagon spokesman. “His hope is that they can sit down with those that refuse the vaccine and bring in medical professionals to clear up any misconceptions they may have.”

No service members have taken legal action against the mandate, but any who refuse to be vaccinated, “absent an approved exemption or accommodation, may be punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” Mr. Dietz said. Like every employer, the military will entertain appeals on religious and medical grounds.

Military leaders had grown tired of vaccination rates that stagnated for months. The low rates were threatening troop readiness, commanders said, and flew in the face of the many vaccine mandates troops must already accept.

But the military in this case reflects the broader culture. More than 80 percent of active-duty service members are under 35, a group that often views itself as impervious to coronavirus infections. Many worry that the vaccines are unsafe, were developed too quickly or will affect fertility, and they have read the same conspiracy theories that have led other Americans to hesitate.

“Our secretary directed a very aggressive schedule,” said Ann Stefanek, a spokeswoman for the Air Force.

All active-duty Air Force members are expected to to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 2, and Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve members are required to be fully vaccinated by Dec. 2. Many units are offering mass distribution sites, with medical workers, chaplains and legal representatives on site to answer questions, Ms. Stefanek said.

In the Air Force, 74.5 percent of active-duty members have had at least one shot, up from 65.2 percent last month.

At the Department of Veterans Affairs, there was fear that vulnerable veterans would be sickened by workers, a concern at nursing homes and private hospitals as well.

“As the secretary has often echoed, complete success would be seeing every V.A. team member vaccinated,” Mr. Hayes said of Denis McDonough, the secretary for the department, who became increasingly alarmed this summer as the Delta variant spread through the nation and the number of sick veterans began to rise.

In July, the department became the first federal agency to require that employees be inoculated, and it has since expanded the mandate.

Data for those who have quit rather than get inoculated is not yet available, officials said, either because they do not keep detailed information on the reasons people resign or because it is too early to know.

“Employees depart V.A. for various reasons; therefore, we are unable to address this specifically,” Mr. Hayes said. “In reference to lawsuits, V.A. typically does not comment on pending litigation.”

Several states and cities have also documented increases in vaccination rates since issuing mandates.

In Maryland, the number of workers at nursing homes who have received their first shot increased to 84 percent from 79 percent after Gov. Larry Hogan announced in mid-August that all employees at nursing homes and hospitals in the state would need to show proof of vaccination or adhere to rigorous testing for the virus.

Workers and contractors for the District of Columbia were told in early August that they had to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 19. At that time, 50 percent of workers reported being inoculated, but as of this week, the rate was 67 percent, said John Falcicchio, the city’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development.

Much of the private sector will also have to comply with new mandates, and some have moved ahead of the administration. After United Airlines announced last month that all of its roughly 67,000 U.S. employees must provide proof that they are vaccinated by Oct. 25 or face termination — the first major airline to issue such a mandate — more than half of employees who were unvaccinated have had shots, officials there said.

Experts warn that it is too early to claim victory over a plan late in coming, or to be sure there will not be a large group of people who quit their jobs to avoid inoculation. “There is not great data,” said Alison M. Buttenheim, the scientific director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on mandates.

“But we know from other examples that people who really don’t want to vaccinate will go to great lengths to avoid mandates, including quitting their job or, in the case of school entry mandates, switching to home-schooling,” she said. “There is scant but growing evidence from Covid-19 vaccine mandates that health care systems can lose employees. What’s great in my opinion about a federal mandate is that it’s now much harder to switch jobs in order to avoid the mandate.”

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