WASHINGTON — The federal Health and Human Services Department is requiring employees who provide care or services for patients to get their COVID-19 shots, officials announced Thursday.
The order from Secretary Xavier Becerra will affect more than 25,000 clinicians, researchers, contractors, trainees and volunteers with the National Institutes of Health, the Indian Health Service, and the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. It applies to employees who regularly interact with patients or whose duties could put workers in contact with patients.
“Requiring our HHS health care workforce to get vaccinated will protect our federal workers, as well as the patients and people they serve,” Becerra said in a statement.
From the Pentagon to the Department of Veterans Affairs and the state of California, and from Google to United Airlines, government agencies and large companies are requiring employees to get vaccinated as the aggressive delta variant sweeps across the land, prompting worries that COVID-19 could drag down the economic recovery.
HHS has more than 80,000 employees. Those not covered by Becerra's order would fall under President Joe Biden's recent policy change that requires federal workers and contractors to attest to their vaccination status and imposes regular COVID-19 testing and certain workplace restrictions on the unvaccinated. But this is short of a direct order to get vaccinated.
While vaccination is nearly universal among physicians, the same can't be said for other people working in health care settings. Facilities such as nursing homes and hospitals are labor-intensive operations relying on support staff for everything from clerical duties to transporting patients, and their vaccination rates often mirror the surrounding communities.
The decision by HHS follows the VA order last month that its health care workers get vaccinated and the recent announcement by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that U.S. service members will be required to get their COVID-19 shots in order to maintain military readiness.
Despite widespread availability of effective vaccines at no cost to patients, only about half the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. New COVID-19 cases have surged past 100,000 a day, a level not seen since the deadly wave of the fall and winter gained momentum last November.
Hardest hit in this latest wave are states with low levels of vaccination and high resistance to government public health directives. But no area of the country is immune. The delta variant is highly efficient at spreading, allowing it to become the dominant coronavirus strain in the U.S. in a matter of weeks.
Employers have broad leeway to require their workers to get vaccinated as a “condition of employment," similar to other rules governing the workplace. Under federal law, workers with religious objections or a medical condition may be entitled to exemptions, as long as that doesn't disrupt the workplace.
The new requirement at HHS will provide for similar medical and religious accommodations.
Officials noted that the employees affected are already required to get annual flu shots and other routine vaccinations. But the Food and Drug Administration still has not issued a full approval for the coronavirus vaccines, only emergency use authorization. That's thought to be contributing to some people's reluctance to get vaccinated, although more than 190 million shots have been administered in the United States. with few reported cases of serious side effects and mounting evidence of effectiveness.