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Few employees out of compliance as USDA vaccination rate rises

Seven of every eight USDA employees are partially or fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and there are few holdouts against President Biden’s order to get vaccinated or seek a waiver, said the White House on Thursday.

Slightly more than 2,000 of the USDA’s 92,000 employees have not responded to the presidential directive, according to White House data.

“We don’t anticipate disruption in operations,” said a USDA spokeswoman.

Farm and livestock groups worried in November about possible shortages of meat inspectors or interruptions in service at USDA local offices if a sufficient portion of workers refused vaccination.

Federal agencies are conducting “robust education and counseling efforts as the first step in an enforcement process,” said the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Further enforcement of the vaccine mandate will be delayed, for the most part, until January. Some workers could receive a letter of reprimand in the interim. Termination is a possibility for noncompliance.

The USDA vaccination rate rose to 88.1%, an increase of 2 percentage points, since the November 22 deadline for employees to receive at least one dose of vaccine or to request a medical or religious exemption.

“USDA is a success story in this regard — vaccine requirements are working, and increased compliance as the process continues is exactly what we anticipated,” said the USDA spokeswoman.

The OMB put the USDA compliance rate at 97.8%, meaning that 2.2% of its employees, or slightly more than 2,000 staffers, were not vaccinated or had not requested a waiver. In late November, the compliance rate was 95.6%.

Some 9.7% of USDA employees have requested or received a waiver. Employees who are granted a waiver would be required to follow USDA protocols on wearing masks, social distancing and testing for COVID-19.

Although its vaccination rate rose, the USDA rate of 88.1% was the lowest among the 15 federal departments. The next lowest was the Department of Veterans Affairs, at 88.5%.

Overall, 92.5% of the federal workforce of more than 3.5 million people has been partially or fully vaccinated. The compliance rate across the federal government was 97.2%.

Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, sought to overturn an administration order for large companies to vaccinate their workers for COVID-19 or test them regularly for the viral disease.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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