WASHINGTON — President Biden’s new coronavirus vaccination mandates prompted some backlash Thursday, but the two federal departments that already require vaccinations — as well as several states, cities and private-sector companies — say their mandates are already doing what they intended: getting more shots in arms.
Since the Pentagon announced last month that active-duty military personnel would be required to be vaccinated, the percentage of service members with at least one shot rose from 76 percent to 83 percent, according to Defense Department data.
At the Department of Veterans Affairs, which issued a vaccine mandate for its 115,000 frontline health care workers seven weeks ago, 82 percent of those employees are now fully vaccinated, up from 77 percent, and the number of shots it has given to all of its workers has more than doubled since early July, said Terrence Hayes, a spokesman for the department.
Since Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland said in mid-August that all employees at nursing homes and hospitals in the state would need to show proof of vaccination or adhere to rigorous testing for the virus, the number of workers at nursing homes who have received their first shot has risen from 79 percent to 84 percent.
After United Airlines announced last month that all of its roughly 67,000 U.S. employees must provide proof that they are vaccinated by Oct. 25 or face termination — the first major airline to issue such a mandate — more than half of employees who were unvaccinated have had shots, officials there said.
The increases elude the goal of getting virtually every employee vaccinated, although in the military, where troops have long been used to taking orders and avoiding voluntary actions, the numbers are expected to rise higher soon. Each service branch is working through its enforcement plan; once the Army makes its official announcement, those numbers are likely to increase, considering it is the largest branch of the military.
“The secretary of defense is giving commanders across the force the freedom to work through the vaccination process how they best see fit,” said Charlie Dietz, a Pentagon spokesman. “His hope is that they can sit down with those that refuse the vaccine and bring in medical professionals to clear up any misconceptions they may have.”
Military leaders had grown tired of vaccination rates that had stagnated for months. The low vaccination rate was threatening troop readiness, commanders said, and at the Department of Veterans Affairs, there was fear that vulnerable veterans would be sickened by workers, a concern at nursing homes and private hospitals as well.
“As the secretary has often echoed, complete success would be seeing every V.A. team member vaccinated,” Mr. Hayes said of Denis McDonough, the secretary for the department, who became increasingly alarmed this summer as the Delta variant marched through the nation and the number of sick veterans began to rise.
In July, the department became the first federal agency to require that employees be inoculated, and it has since expanded the mandate.
Data for those who have quit rather than get inoculated is not yet available, officials said, either because they do not keep detailed information on the reasons people resign or because it is too early to know. “Employees depart V.A. for various reasons, therefore, we are unable to address this specifically,” Mr. Hayes said. “In reference to lawsuits, VA typically does not comment on pending litigation.”
Experts warn that it is too early to claim victory over a plan late in coming, or to be sure there will not be a large group of people who quit their jobs to avoid inoculation. “There is not great data,” said Alison M. Buttenheim, the scientific director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on mandates.
“But we know from other examples that people who really don’t want to vaccinate will go to great lengths to avoid mandates, including quitting their job, or, in the case of school entry mandates, switching to homeschooling,” she said. “There is scant but growing evidence from Covid-19 vaccine mandates that health care systems can lose employees. What’s great in my opinion about a federal mandate is that it’s now much harder to switch jobs in order to avoid the mandate.”