10 Things You Need to Know About Accessing the COVID-19 Vaccine at the VA
The Elizabeth Dole Foundation, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and Philips recently gathered for a Spotlight Series focused on the VA’s COVID-19 vaccination distribution plan for veterans and their caregivers. Expert panelists from the VA and EDF answered questions from veterans, caregivers, and partners nationwide.
Since vaccinating their first patient, a 96-year-old female World War II veteran on December 14, 2020, the VA has inoculated more than one million individuals in just two months. More than 258 VA sites currently offer the vaccine, with 65.4 percent of employees having been vaccinated, and more than 638,000 veterans having received at least the first dose.
The VA stands ready to further expand the pace of vaccinations, “I cannot urge you enough to accept the vaccine as soon as it becomes available to you,” says Dr. Lieberman. “It is the only way to get closer to that normalcy in life. So, please say yes to receiving the vaccine.”
Here are the top 10 things you need to know about getting the COVID-19 vaccine through the VA:
1. You can get the vaccine at ANY VA facility, not just your “home” VA. So long as you meet vaccine eligibility requirements, you don’t have to be a resident of the state for the VA Medical Center to vaccinate you.
If you are traveling, make contact with the VA facility closest to you and let them know you’re interested in getting vaccinated at their location.
Dr. Jane Kim recommends getting the first and second dose at the same location because local VA demand allocates vaccine supply. “Think about timing if you’re a veteran and if you’re elsewhere,” says Dr. Kim. “Think about whether you can be around in the three to four weeks after you get your first dose to make sure you get your second dose at the same place.”
2. As of January 12, military caregivers must be an approved member of the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers (PCAFC) to receive the vaccine through the VA.
In January, VHA Executive in Charge Dr. Richard Stone signed a memo extending COVID-19 testing and vaccinations to primary and secondary caregivers in PCAFC. Caregivers currently in the process of enrolling or whose applications are under review must wait to be an approved member before signing up to receive the vaccine through the VA.
“We only have the legal authority to offer it to caregivers approved for PCAFC at this point,” says Jill DeBord. When the local VA facility contacts the veteran, they will schedule the caregiver at the same time. “Our goal through this whole process has been to reduce the stress on the caregivers, allowing them to receive the vaccination at the same time as their veteran, as well as to provide the additional support and protection for the veterans.”
If the veteran has previously been vaccinated for COVID-19 and the caregiver has not, caregivers should contact their Caregiver Support Coordinator and let them know they would like information about getting the vaccine at the VA.
Caregivers not enrolled in PCAFC are encouraged to work with their local health officials to get the vaccine as soon as it becomes available to them. If you’re eligible to join PCAFC, you can apply here.
3. When all veterans will be vaccinated through the VA is to be determined and strictly depends on vaccine supply.
“VA facilities currently vaccinate at a high rate and we anticipate the vaccine supply to increase down the road,” says Dr. Lieberman. The main limitation for the VA, and throughout the country, is supply.
“The good news is vaccine supply is supposed to increase dramatically this year, even by summertime. Until we see those increases and get them to our facilities, we continue to vaccinate as much as we can of the supply we have,” says Dr. Kim.
4. Veterans who’ve never utilized their VA benefits are still eligible to access the vaccine through a VA Medical Center.
The vaccine is FREE of cost at the VA. Those who have never used their benefits should contact their local VA office to be placed in the system. Even those who have not used the VA, or had a recent visit, should contact their local office to ensure they’re in the system. Make contact and let the VA office know you’re interested in receiving the vaccine. Find your local VA facility here.
If veterans and caregivers have other insurance, including Tricare, they are also eligible to go to VA and be vaccinated if they’re a patient of VA currently. “You can choose to get it through DOD, your state, or your private doctor if you’d like, but certainly if you get care from us, you can get the vaccine from us,” says Dr. Kim.
5. VA is exploring opportunities to provide veterans and caregivers in rural areas access to the vaccine via Community-Based Outpatient Clinics (CBOCs).
Vaccines are available at many CBOCs, but not all, due to limited supply and handling requirements.
Efforts are underway to make the approved Moderna vaccine more readily available to veterans and caregivers in rural areas. VA is discussing creative vaccination efforts, including most recently flying the vaccines to remote areas of the country.
“Chartered flights sent vaccines and our staff to a couple of locations in Montana. We’re also looking in the near future to do this in Alaska and Idaho at some locations,” says Dr. Lieberman. “We really are making this a priority to look at all of our options that are available, and I do expect you’ll see more vaccines offered in rural areas.”
Two new vaccines under review by the FDA – the Janssen vaccine and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine – don’t require as much handling or storage requirements and have easier administration requirements for CBOCs with limited resources. The vaccines’ authorizations are expected for late February and March, says Dr. Kim.
6. Visit your local VA’s website for information about how they prioritize vaccine eligibility for high-risk individuals.
After introducing the vaccine, CDC released recommendations of who should receive the vaccine with the current supply, based on risk.
“That CDC recommendation is the basis for [how] VA’s are allocating vaccines, and is the foundation for many states’ plans as well,” says Dr. Kim. “The VA has the ability to flex and customize CDC’s recommendations to make sure we’re accounting for local factors and the local population.” Visit your VA facility’s website to see how they’re prioritizing vaccine roll out in your community.
7. If you’re a caregiver who is eligible to receive the vaccine at the same time as your veteran, take advantage of it!
If the potential side effects are preventing you and your veteran from getting the vaccine at the same time in case one of you falls ill, please know everyone’s response to products is different, advises Dr. Kim.
“Unless you’re worried about significant side effects and have a history of severe allergic reactions to previous vaccines, take advantage of the opportunity and get the vaccine together,” she says. Do speak with your care provider first to discuss your particular situation. It can still be safe to receive the vaccine, but you may require more time to adjust.
8. COVID-19 vaccines were fast-tracked in development, and health care officials ensure they’re safe.
The vaccines were studied in tens of thousands of people and were determined to be safe. There are side effects, but in terms of related death or serious injury, there were no significant signals that would lead the FDA to not recommend them.
“The vaccines were developed rapidly because the U.S. government did put a lot of support behind them to make sure the process went fast and fast-tracked them without skipping any steps that would be needed for safety or effectiveness,” says Dr. Kim. The vaccines are safe, effective, and when they have the opportunity to receive it, they should do so immediately.
9. Stay informed with the VA.gov “Keep me informed” COVID-19 Vaccine Engagement Tool.
The best way to stay informed about getting the COVID-19 vaccine at your local VA is to sign up for critical updates! 500k veterans have enrolled so far. Veterans and caregivers can indicate interest and plans to be vaccinated. If an individual receives care from the VA, it will directly link them to the local VHA facility, and a representative will reach out to those who have signed up when it’s their turn to receive the vaccine. They also offer information and answers to questions along the way via text, email, and telephone. Sign up here.
10. Continue to follow CDC social distancing guidelines, even after you’ve received the vaccine.
COVID-19 vaccines are one of the most important tools to stop the pandemic. Scientists continue to learn the vaccine’s effectiveness and whether or not the vaccine breaks the chain of transmission, in addition to infection. Continue to wear a mask when around others, stay at least six feet away from others, avoid crowds, and wash your hands often, per the recommendations of the Center for Disease Control.
“While we are not fully past the pandemic, we are at a much better time now than we have been,” says Dr. Lieberman. “I have much optimism for our future.”
Rewatch the recording anytime on our YouTube channel. For more information on the Foundation’s response to COVID-19 and our helpful resource guide, visit hiddenheroes.org/coronavirus.
Special thanks to our partners at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Philips for making this Spotlight Series possible. We’d also like to recognize our expert panelists and thank them for their time:
- Dr. Steven Lieberman, Acting Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Health, Veterans Health Administration
- Dr. Jane Kim, Chief Consultant for Preventive Medicine, VA National Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention
- Jill DeBord, LCSW, Acting National Director, VA Caregiver Support Program
- Rashi Venkataraman Romanoff, VP of Programs and Partnerships, Elizabeth Dole Foundation