The US Department of Veterans Affairs has mandated that its doctors and other medical staff get COVID-19 vaccines, becoming the first federal agency to impose such a requirement at a time of entrenched vaccine reluctance by some Americans.
- The mandate applies to more than 360,000 healthcare professionals, including doctors, dentists and nurses
- The US is seeking to jump-start its vaccination drive as the Delta variant spreads throughout the country
- Due to the Delta outbreak, travel restrictions that have barred much of the world from the US since 2020 will not be lifted
“It’s the best way to keep veterans safe, especially as the Delta variant spreads across the country,” Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement.
“Whenever a veteran or VA employee sets foot in a VA facility, they deserve to know that we have done everything in our power to protect them from COVID-19. With this mandate, we can once again make — and keep — that fundamental promise,” Mr McDonough added.
The VA comprises the largest US healthcare system, employing more than 367,200 full-time healthcare professionals and support staff at 1,293 facilities, according to its website.
The VA’s vaccination mandate applies to doctors, dentists, registered nurses and physician assistants, among others.
The agency said these employees will have eight weeks to become fully vaccinated. It said four unvaccinated VA employees already have died from COVID-19.
US President Joe Biden sidestepped a question from reporters at the White House on whether the vaccination requirement should be extended to more federal employees.
The VA’s decision was announced on the same day that 57 leading US medical associations called for all healthcare and long-term care employers to require employees to get vaccinated.
With the highly transmissible Delta variant leading to a surge in COVID-19 cases, the US government is also seeking to jump-start its vaccination drive, with COVID-19 cases rising especially in areas with relatively low vaccination rates.
California and New York City announced their own mandates that government workers get vaccinated against COVID-19 or be regularly tested for the virus.
The United States is reporting more than 47,000 daily cases of COVID-19, according to a seven-day US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) average, much lower than a peak above 200,000 at the beginning of the year but nearly triple the pace of a month ago.
CDC director Rochelle Walensky said last week that the seven-day average of new cases in the United States was up 53 per cent over the previous week.
All travel restrictions to remain
The White House has also announced that due to the Delta outbreak, “at this point” the US will not be lifting any existing travel restrictions
It means that the long-running travel restrictions that have barred much of the world’s population from the US since 2020 will not be lifted in the short term.
“Given where we are today … with the Delta variant, we will maintain existing travel restrictions at this point,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
The announcement almost certainly dooms any bid by US airlines and the US tourism industry to salvage summer travel by Europeans and others covered by the restrictions.
Airlines have heavily lobbied the White House for months to lift the restrictions and some say the industry may now have to wait until September or later for a possible revision.
The United States currently bars most non-US citizens who within the last 14 days have been in the United Kingdom, the 26 Schengen nations in Europe without internal border controls, or in Ireland, China, India, South Africa, Iran and Brazil.
The extraordinary US travel restrictions were first imposed on China in January 2020 to address the spread of COVID-19. Other countries have since been added, most recently India in early May.
Last week, the US Homeland Security Department said US land borders with Canada and Mexico would remain closed to non-essential travel until at least August 21 – even as Canada said it would begin allowing in fully vaccinated American tourists starting August 9.
Asked on July 15 at a joint appearance with German Chancellor Angela Merkel about when the United States would lift European travel restrictions, Mr Biden said he would “be able to answer that question to you within the next several days — what is likely to happen.”
Ms Merkel said any decision to lift restrictions “has to be a sustainable decision. It is certainly not sensible to have to take it back after only a few days”.
Since that news conference, US cases have jumped.
The Delta variant, which was first found in India, now comprises more than 80 per cent of new cases nationwide and has been detected in more than 90 countries.
Ms Psaki also cited the fact that last week, the CDC urged Americans to avoid travel to the UK, given a jump in cases.
The restrictions have brought heavy criticism from people prevented from seeing loved ones and the White House has acknowledged a desire to reunite separated families.
The Biden administration has refused to offer any metrics that would trigger when it will unwind restrictions and has not disclosed if it will remove restrictions on individual countries or focus on enhancing individual traveller scrutiny.