As federal agencies weigh return-to-work timelines and face threats from emerging variants of COVID-19, agency leaders are preparing for impacts in what Dr. Anthony Fauci described as "a pandemic among the unvaccinated."
Now President Biden is directing all federal employees to be vaccinated in an effort to fully combat the pandemic as the more transmissible strain of this virus causes surges in coronavirus cases nationwide.
"The good news is that we are prepared for this. We know how to stop it: get more people vaccinated," according to a written announcement from the White House Thursday. Those who remain unvaccinated would be subjected to new rules on masking and weekly testing.
It's the latest move preceded by a similar mandate from the Department of Veterans Affairs to vaccinate health care workers and comes amid the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's new recommendations for vaccinated people to continue wearing masks indoors. It was only just a week ago that agencies met their deadline to submit their return-to-work plans that now face potential disruption.
But VA was the first federal agency to outright require vaccination among employees before the president's announcement.
“The spread of the Delta variant is causing an exponential increase in infections and hospitalizations across the country, and VA is no exception. Since last month, COVID-related hospitalizations at VA have increased by 37%. We've already lost thousands of vets to COVID. And now we're seeing uptakes and infections and deaths once again,” said VA Secretary Denis McDonough during a Tuesday press conference.
While the majority of VA’s health care employees have been fully vaccinated, nearly one in three has yet to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, said Steven Lieberman, VA's deputy under secretary for health.
Being a part of the federal response to the pandemic, VA has motivation to get as many people vaccinated as possible and prevent a repeat of last year. In 2020, it notably enacted its Fourth Mission to provide hospital space and care to treat civilian patients. Its own vaccine mandate was perhaps ahead of the curve.
“VA is part of the federal response and continues to support Fourth Mission assignments, including support for vaccine and testing efforts," a spokesperson for the VA's Office of the Under Secretary for Health told GovernmentCIO Media & Research. "Where COVID-19 cases are overwhelming community health care systems and mitigation strategies have been maximized, VA stands prepared to assist based on our internal capabilities."
The Biden administration has yet to comment on how these new disruptions from COVID-19 surges and new variants will impact agencies' previously submitted return-to-work strategies.