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USDA vaccination rate is lowest in federal government

Six of every seven USDA employees are partially or fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and the USDA says it expects that in the weeks ahead more will get vaccinated in compliance with the federal mandate. All the same, the USDA’s vaccination rate of 86.1% was the lowest among the 15 federal departments, according to the White House.

Next lowest were the departments of Veterans Affairs, 87.8%, and Interior, 88.3%. The average for the federal workforce of more than 3.5 million people was 92%.

The White House described the vaccination rates as proof the mandate has been a success: “These requirements work: they increase vaccination rates.” The announcement of the rates comes as public health agencies around the world are scrambling to track and analyze the potentially dangerous new omicron variant of the coronavirus, first detected in South Africa. The variant was reported in the Netherlands and Australia on Sunday. It also was in Israel and Hong Kong.

“Implementation of the [vaccine] requirement will not result in any disruptions to critical services that Americans depend on,” said the USDA. “As we continue to see more and more of our employees provide their vaccination information — and as we continue an education and counseling process for the small percentage of employees who have not yet complied — we anticipate that even more of our employees will get vaccinated in the days and weeks ahead.”

President Biden set a deadline of Nov. 22 for federal workers to be fully vaccinated, meaning two weeks after completing their inoculation regimen. The Office of Management and Budget deemed workers vaccinated if they had received at least one dose; it reported a 96.5% compliance rate across the government, combining those vaccinated with workers who requested a medical or religious exemption.

The USDA compliance rate was 95.6%, indicating that 9.5% of its workers have requested a waiver and 4.4% have not responded to the vaccination mandate. The USDA lists a workforce of 92,000 people, including 7,000 nonfederal employees who work in Farm Service Agency offices but who were hired through the farmer-elected committees that guide local operations.

Workers face discipline, up to dismissal from employment, if they refuse to be vaccinated or obtain a waiver, said the USDA in a workplace safety plan issued last week. “Consistent with the administration’s policy, USDA will initiate an enforcement process to work with employees to ensure their compliance,” said the safety plan. The department said it would not pursue disciplinary action against an employee while a request for an exemption was pending. If a request is denied, the employee has two weeks to be vaccinated. If two shots are required, the employee has an additional six weeks to get the second dose.

“Generally, employees who are approved for accommodation would need to follow applicable masking, physical distancing, and testing protocols (if required) for individuals who are not fully vaccinated, as well as applicable travel guidance,” said USDA.

The OMB said the education and counseling stage “will not result in disruptions to government services and will result in more employees becoming vaccinated.”

Workers who have refused vaccination can expect a week of counseling about the vaccines and the potential consequences of noncompliance. An unpaid suspension from work would follow. After that, termination becomes possible. The process of firing a federal employee takes at least a month to complete, reported the Washington Post. During that period, the employee is expected to continue working and comply with rules on wearing masks and being tested for COVID-19.

Farm and livestock groups said early this month that they were worried about disruptions in USDA meat inspection or office hours at USDA’s local offices if a sufficient portion of workers rejected vaccination.

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