The Department of Veterans Affairs became the first federal agency to mandate coronavirus vaccination for employees Monday when its leaders gave heath care workers eight weeks to get inoculated.

The move impacts Veterans Health Administration workers including doctors and nurses who work at VA facilities throughout the nation.

“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,” Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “With this mandate, we can once again make – and keep – that fundamental promise.”

Vaccines have been encouraged but not required across much of the federal government, with even the Department of Defense hesitant to mandate vaccination for troops. 

The Pentagon has said it held off on mandating the vaccines because they were approved by the Food and Drug Administration with an emergency use authorization, which fast tracked the drug without years of clinical trials.

State and local governments have also held off mandating vaccines. The exception has been on college campuses, with the Colorado State University systems and others requiring students and workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before classes start in the fall.

The vaccine mandate at Veterans Affairs comes as infections from the delta variant of the coronavirus surge across the United States.

As many as 66,000 Americans per day have tested positive for coronavirus infections in recent days, according to statistics from the federal Centers for Disease control and Prevention.

“In recent weeks, VA has lost four employees to COVID-19 – all of whom were unvaccinated,” the agency said in a news release. “At least three of those employees died because of the increasingly prevalent delta variant. There has also been an outbreak among unvaccinated employees and trainees at a VA Law Enforcement Training Center, the third such outbreak during the pandemic.”

The agency said its workers could be vaccinated for free at the agency’s hospitals and clinics.

The health care workers also get an incentive to get their coronavirus shots: more time off.

VA said fully-inoculated workers will get four hours of addition leave.

One big reason for VA’s vaccine push is the average age of the patients it serves. More than 40% of veterans using VA health care are over the age of 65, an age considered to be most vulnerable to the virus.

More than 477,000 Americans 65 and older have died from the virus, CDC statistics show. That accounts for more than 79% of all U.S. deaths tied to the pandemic. VA has worked to reassure its workers and patients that vaccines to prevent the virus are safe.

“Millions of people in the United States have now received COVID-19 vaccines under the most intense safety monitoring in U.S. history,” the agency said. “Many people have reported only mild side effects after getting a COVID-19 vaccine. Serious side effects are rare.”

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