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VA Secretary Denis McDonough Vows Safety For Veterans During Florida Visit

VA Secretary Denis McDonough sits down with an elderly veteran inside the Tampa VA hospital. Both men are wearing masks.
Melvin Abreu
James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital
McDonough is also mandating people wear masks in VA buildings regardless of their vaccination status in areas with high transmission of COVID, including Florida.

The secretary was in Tampa visiting with health workers and veterans. He says he has a duty to protect VA patients from the powerful delta variant. That's why he's mandating staff get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough talked about recent efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus on Friday while in Tampa, including his decision to mandate health workers get vaccinated against COVID-19.

This week the VA became the first federal agency to impose such requirements. About 115,000 of the agency’s most patient-facing employees, including doctors, nurses, podiatrists and chiropractors, have two months to get fully vaccinated or face losing their jobs.

Many veterans who use the VA are older and have underlying health conditions. With the highly transmissible delta variant spreading rapidly, McDonough told WUSF he can’t take any chances.

“Given that our veterans have more complicated health care situations, I think that it is my responsibility to do everything within my power to ensure that when they come into a VA facility, they can have confidence that they will be safe and not be exposed,” he said.

To date, 12,739 veterans and 148 VA employees have died from COVID-19, with some recent deaths attributed to the delta variant.

McDonough said the mandate applied to employees hired under a code of law known as Title 38, under which he said he has “the clear ability to require this vaccination without fear that it’s going to be challenged.”

The secretary said he is currently examining legal possibilities for requiring more VA staff to get inoculated.

“Especially in a state like Florida with more than 1.5 million veterans, you know, the third-highest veteran population by state in the union, the most important thing any of us can do to protect these heroes is to get vaccinated,” he said.

COVID surge not stopping care

McDonough was in the state visiting VA facilities, some of which include the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, the Bay Pines National Cemetery in St. Petersburg and the Miami VA Medical Center. When visiting the latter, he said staff told him there was already an uptick in vaccinations since the mandate was announced on Monday.

The department is also now requiring people wear masks in VA buildings, regardless of their vaccination status, in areas where there is high transmission of COVID-19 — which includes Florida.

Like civilian hospitals, McDonough said VA facilities in the state are seeing an uptick in patients. He said he talked with leadership at the Tampa VA about how they’re handling the situation.

"They've assured me that they're planning for this surge. They're really being careful to not have to change the provision of care that we're giving," he said.

The secretary wants vets to know that telehealth options are still available for those who would rather not come in, but that the VA is open for all forms of health care, including getting COVID vaccines.

More than 3.1 million VA patients are fully vaccinated, just over half the number of vets who receive care through the agency.

McDonough said he will continue to encourage vaccinations while addressing thousands of vets at the Disabled American Veterans and Auxiliary National Convention in downtown Tampa on Saturday.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.