Milwaukee VA COVID vaccine mandate, Ron Johnson demands answers

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) demands answers about the Milwaukee Veterans Affairs Medical Center’s employee COVID-19 mandate.

In a letter dated April 13, and which FOX6 News acquired first, the senator demands answers from the center’s director, Daniel Zomchek, Ph.D, and adds he has heard from some employees of the VA Medical Center (VAMC).

"Despite their willingness to continue to be tested for COVID-19 or natural immunity from the virus, Milwaukee VAMC officials are apparently forcing these employees to be fully vaccinated," Johnson wrote.

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The letter cites a FOX6 story reporting at least five nurses at the Milwaukee center who had previously received medical or religious exemptions from the vaccine mandate are now being denied the exemptions.

"Those unvaccinated nurses and many other VAMC employees that have contacted my office fear that they may lose their jobs unless they adhere to the coercive mandate," the senator wrote. "The Milwaukee VAMC employees that reached out to my office fear that the facility’s coercive vaccine mandate will cause staff shortages and directly effect patient care. I share those legitimate concerns."

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin)

Johnson argues vaccine mandates are "pointless and destructive" and then asks the director to answer these questions:

  1. How many COVID-19 vaccine exemptions have been granted for Milwaukee VAMC employees?
  2. How many requests for exemptions have been denied?
  3. What is the purpose of requiring COVID-19 vaccination if it cannot prevent infection and spread?
  4. Is it true that the facility will not offer weekly COVID-19 testing to employees or test for natural immunity? If so, please explain the justification for these policies.

Before the letter was sent, the Milwaukee VA wrote in a statement in defense of the vaccine mandate:

"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."

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As FOX6 originally reported on Sunday, April 10, the five nurses say the center’s actions are "a disservice to our country."

"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 Jennifer Graham.

Graham once served in the Air Force. For the past 13 years, she’s worked at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center, a job she worries she could soon lose because she's unvaccinated.

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

Zablocki VA Medical Center, Milwaukee

Zablocki VA Medical Center, Milwaukee

The Biden administration’s Office of Personnel Management says the administration's vaccine mandate is for all federal employees – "other than in limited circumstances where the law requires an exception. In particular, an agency may be required to provide a reasonable accommodation to employees who communicate to the agency that they are not vaccinated against COVID-19 because of a disability or because of a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance."

In January, a federal district judge blocked the mandate. However, last week the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled 2-1 on jurisdictional issues that there is an administrative process to challenge the mandate before employees could file in federal district court, so the lower court should have dismissed the lawsuit. An appeal is expected of that appeals court ruling.

In a letter Veterans Affairs Secretary Dennis McDonough sent to all employees on Monday, April 11, which FOX6 obtained, he said the appeals court decision "does not reinstate the President’s vaccine requirement at this time, because there are still procedural steps that need to happen..."

At the same time, the VA secretary said that lower court’s blockage of the federal workers mandate did not stop the department from requiring all health care works be vaccinated or receive an exemption: "In other words, as of now, nothing has changed. We will continue to implement our vaccine requirement for Veterans Health Administration (VHA) health care personnel, but we will continue to pause on implementing the President’s executive order for other Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employees."

In a January press briefing, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said 98% of federal workers were in compliance with the requirements.

Biden

FILE - U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on Russia and Ukraine in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. 

Statement from Milwaukee VA, Given Sunday

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.

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