COVID-19 vaccine to be mandated for VA hospital staff in Kansas as part of national effort

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced that frontline staff will be required to get a COVID-19 vaccine. The agency runs several facilities in Kansas, including the Colmery-O'Neil VA Medical Center in Topeka, pictured here.

Frontline workers at U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs facilities in eastern Kansas will be mandated to get the COVID-19 vaccine as part of a national requirement in response to the ongoing delta variant spread, the agency announced Monday.

The move is significant, as the VA is one of the largest health systems nationally and has a major presence in Kansas, with hospitals in Topeka, Leavenworth and Wichita, and smaller, community-based operations in more than a dozen other Kansas towns.

Only staff members who most regularly interact with patients will be required to get the shots, including physicians, dentists, registered nurses, physicians assistants and other medical fields covered by Title 38 of the U.S. Code.

“We’re mandating vaccines for Title 38 employees because it’s the best way to keep Veterans safe, especially as the Delta variant spreads across the country,” VA Secretary Dennis 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.”

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough, shown In May at Topeka's Colmery-O'Neil VA Medical Center, announced that frontline staff, including those in Kansas, will be required to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Workers will have eight weeks to get vaccinated and the agency said shots will be available at each VA facility nationally to help them comply. It is unclear what penalties could be faced for those who refuse to comply, although the New York Times reported that holdouts could be dismissed from their position.

Over 2,300 staff members at the eastern Kansas VA hospitals in Topeka and Leavenworth have received shots, although it is unclear how many of them are Title 38 employees

The announcements comes as more than 50 health care and medical groups called for employers to mandate hospital and long-term care workers be vaccinated, with the American Medical Association and American Academy of Pediatrics among those making the appeal.

More:Kansas hospitals are taking steps to prepare for rise in COVID-19 cases as Delta variant threat looms

While many facilities had previously said they would wait until the Food and Drug Administration fully approved the shots to require employees be vaccinated, a decision that likely won't occur until fall, at the earliest.

But the rising spread of the delta variant in the region has prompted many to re-evaluate. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment on Monday reported an increase of 1,488 cases of COVID-19 since Friday, a rise powered in part by the delta variant. 

Mercy began requiring its hospital workers get the vaccine after a rise of cases in Missouri, where it has a number of facilities. That includes a hospital in Columbus, Kansas, where hospital administrator Angie Saporito said earlier this month that efforts were underway to comply with the requirement.

More:Is a new COVID-19 surge primarily hurting Kansas counties with low vaccination rates? Here’s what the data says.

But others are taking a wait-and-see approach. Steve Stites, chief medical officer at The University of Kansas Health System, said last week that the system was at 75% vaccination and would be working to increase that, although he noted a mandate could still be on the cards in the future.

"We're going to evaluate that," Stites said. "Our stance thus far has been that we are going to wait for full authorization before we go to mandatory vaccination. We need to have that discussion more fully in the system."