Milwaukee VA COVID vaccine mandate, unvaccinated nurses worry

"A disservice to our country" is how unvaccinated nurses at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center describe enforcement of a COVID vaccine mandate which could result in staff losing their jobs.

Five nurses spoke with FOX6 News Sunday, April 10, and all of them said they are unvaccinated because of a medical or religious exemption. That has worked before, but now, they say senior staff are denying that exemption. If they don't comply, they say they could lose their jobs.

"There's a lot more pride," said Jennifer Graham. "There's a lot more camaraderie."

Graham's service didn't end when she retired from the Air Force. She's spent the last 13 years at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center, a job she worries she could soon lose because she's unvaccinated.

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 "We've been weekly testing. We've been masking, and now, these things are no longer good enough, and they want me to go against my religious belief when I've been doing the same thing this whole time," said Graham.

Graham spoke to FOX6 off-camera on Sunday out of fear of retaliation for speaking up. Her biggest concern isn't losing her job. Instead, Graham says firing as many as 50 nurses would cause more harm for patients.

"Are they going to be able to hire people in time to keep these veterans safe and able to get the care they deserve?" said Graham.

Statement from Milwaukee VA 

Zablocki VA Health Care System’s priority is, and always has been, the safety of our Veterans and employees.  Zablocki VA follows  Veterans Health Administration (VHA) Directive 1193.01 requiring all VHA healthcare personnel (examples include: psychologists, pharmacists, social workers, nursing assistants, physical therapists, peer specialists, medical support assistants, engineers, housekeepers, and other clinical, administrative and infrastructure employees) to be fully vaccinated or have an approved reasonable accommodation for medical, pregnancy, or religious reasons.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations demonstrate that vaccination remains the safest strategy to prevent the emergence of novel variants, SARS-CoV-2 infections, and associated COVID-19-related disease complications.  The goal of the requirement is to increase vaccination and thereby patient and employee safety.

VHA has prioritized efforts to provide education on vaccination and to ensure processes were in place for processing employee requests for reasonable accommodation related to the vaccine requirement.  If an employee cannot be accommodated, we will communicate that information to the employee and offer the employee the option to pursue reassignment in attempts to place the employee in an alternate position.  

If the job search is unsuccessful or if the employee declines the option for reassignment, the employee will be provided a letter of counseling informing them they have 14 days to begin the vaccination process or further administrative action up to removal could follow.  The counseling will also provide resources/education on vaccination including where to obtain the vaccine.  The process involves working directly with individual employees and communicating expectations.  There is no intention for employees to be surprised or escorted out of the facility in the manner described.  VA will continue with a focus on ensuring employees’ rights while optimizing Veteran care and safety and enforcing vaccination requirements.

The Veterans Health Administration Directive was published in August 2021 so it's unclear why the VA would just now begin enforcement.

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