All veterans and their spouses are eligible to get vaccinated for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) through the Department of Veterans Affairs, and based on multiple first-hand accounts from veterans, many of them are getting same-week appointments.
As the country’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts continue to ramp up, we here at Task & Purpose have been seeing a lot of vets on social media talking about the vaccine and how they got it. For many it seemed to be as simple as picking up the phone:
That tweet is far from the only one, with many other veterans taking to Twitter to share not only that they got an appointment for a vaccine, but to walk others through how they did it. A quick tally of veterans at Task & Purpose revealed much the same, with one veteran calling his local VA clinic in Shiloh, Illinois and getting an appointment there; and another signing up with the VA to get an update on when a vaccination appointment was available, and then getting a text that he had an appointment the following Monday at the VA Medical Center in Long Beach, California.
For many, it was a bit of a surprise: The COVID-19 pandemic news cycle has been filled with stories of delays and vaccine shortages, and there is of course the need to prioritize frontline workers and those who face greater risk, should they get sick with the virus.
But with the passage of the Save Lives Act, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden on March 24, the VA dramatically broadened the eligibility for vaccinations, opening the door to all veterans, their spouses, veteran caregivers, and others.
“In two days of testing, we safely and successfully vaccinated 1,000 Veterans, spouses, and caregivers who would not normally be eligible for a VA vaccination,” reads a recent VA news release, which notes that the department will be expected to provide vaccinations to as many as 30 million people under the new guidelines. “That vaccination rate will only increase as we expand our capacity and take delivery of more and more doses of vaccine.”
The post also included a litany of responses from readers, many of whom were veterans. Some expressed skepticism, given the VA’s reputation as a lumbering bureaucracy, but others said that they’d quickly made calls to their local medical centers and clinics, and gotten appointments that same week.
That said, Michele Hammonds, a spokeswoman for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said that wait times for vaccinations vary by facility due to vaccine availability and local demand, so it may be slower depending on where you are.
When I first saw the comments going around on social media I was skeptical, mostly because I was sure I wasn’t eligible. I’m in my mid-30s, don’t have any underlying health conditions that place me at higher risk from COVID-19, don’t use the VA for healthcare, and my risk of exposure is pretty limited, seeing as I spend my days working from the relative safety of my home.
I’d previously signed up with the VA to be notified when vaccines became available but had yet to hear back — and still haven’t — and my attempts to get a vaccination appointment online ended after two frustrating hours when I was locked out of the VA’s online healthcare portal, My HealtheVet. So, after seeing all the photos of signed vaccination cards, and tweets from other veterans encouraging folks to ‘pick up the phone and call the VA’ I figured ‘what the hell’ and rang the nearby Veterans Affairs clinic in Silver Spring, Maryland where I live.
Once I got through and asked if they did COVID-19 vaccinations there, the older gentleman on the phone politely told me “no” and gave me the number for the vaccination hotline at the nearby Washington, D.C. Veterans Affairs Medical Center. (The number for the D.C. VA Medical Center vaccination hotline is: 202-745-4342. However, as of Monday the hotline was not accepting additional calls, and instead directed veterans to leave a message with their personal information and call back number.)
I called and was immediately greeted by a prompt informing me that COVID-19 vaccinations were for enrolled veterans over the age of 50, those with underlying health conditions, and front-line healthcare workers. But, I pressed the first prompt, as another vet had suggested, and spoke with an actual person. I asked if I was eligible to get vaccinated at the VA, and after providing my name, date of birth, and the last four of my social security number, the operator informed me that I was eligible and could schedule an appointment that week not just for myself, but for my wife — who is not a veteran.
Given the changes to vaccine eligibility at the VA, it seemed like a good idea to put together a guide for other veterans, since the word doesn’t seem to have been passed in a uniform way. For instance, after my wife checked in during our appointment, one of the VA caregivers asked the other vets nearby if they were married, and told them they could bring their spouse to get vaccinated. Two veterans within earshot said that they had no idea that was even an option. Neither did I until I was told so over the phone.
Which is why we took the anecdotal evidence we got from other veterans, and checked in with the Department of Veterans Affairs, so we could provide folks with a ‘Barney-style’ breakdown on the new vaccine eligibility requirements.
Who exactly is eligible for a COVID-19 vaccination through the Department of Veterans Affairs?
Under the Save Lives Act all veterans are eligible.
That’s right, you don’t even need to be enrolled in the VA to get signed up for a vaccine — though you may want to check with your local clinic or hospital about whether onsite parking is available to veterans without a VA ID card.
Additionally, the language of the bill defines veterans as “all those who served in the active military, naval, or air service,” and who were discharged or released under any conditions “other than dishonorable,” which means veterans with a “bad paper discharge,” such as an Other Than Honorable discharge, are also able to get vaccinated at the VA.
The bill also makes COVID-19 vaccinations at the VA available to the following groups:
- Spouses of veterans. In other words “If they characterize their relationship as spousal, they can receive the vaccine at VA,” said Veterans Affairs spokesman Randal Noller. (Michele Hammonds, another VA spokesperson, clarified that this includes widows and widowers of military veterans.)
- Veterans who are eligible for hospital care, medical services, and nursing home care abroad.
- Family caregivers approved under the VA’s Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers.
- Caregivers of veterans participating in the VA’s Program of General Caregiver Support Services.
- Caregivers of veterans participating in the VA’s Medical Foster Home Program, Bowel and Bladder Program, Home Based Primary Care Program, or Veteran Directed Care Program.
- As well as Civilian Health and Medical Programs of the Department of Veterans Affairs (CHAMPVA) recipients, a health care program in which the VA shares the cost of covered health care services with eligible beneficiaries.
I want to get vaccinated at the VA, what’s the best way to get an appointment?
The department’s recommendation is for veterans to sign up to get vaccinated online, which you can do here, said Noller, a VA spokesman.
“This site is preferred to a phone call given the large expansion in the number of persons that VA is legally authorized to vaccinate,” Noller said. “Visiting a local VA facility in person is not recommended without an appointment during the COVID-19 pandemic, but local facility website’s may have additional information on what to expect based on local supply of vaccine and capacity to expand.
Is there a VA ‘phone line’ for vaccinations, and if so, what is it?
No. However, for veterans who have signed up online, the VA will notify them directly by phone, letter, email or text, but that doesn’t mean cold calling your local VA isn’t an option.
“Individuals can see if their local facility has available vaccines by visiting their local facility’s website,” Noller said, and that website can be found here.
Once on the VA facility locator webpage, choose “Health Care Services” from the left-hand column, and when the dropdown menu opens, choose “COVID-19 Vaccines.”
You can also use the facility locator to find the phone number for the nearest clinic’s main line.
“For persons already in care in VA, there is no need to sign up online or elsewhere to be vaccinated,” said Noller, adding that those “who are enrolled in and receiving care in VA should receive instructions on local processes to schedule an appointment to be vaccinated when there is vaccine supply available and their risk group is being offered vaccine.
If my local clinic and the nearest VAMC don’t have any vaccination appointments available, but one further away does, can I schedule an appointment there?
“VA is currently distributing vaccines to most medical facilities,” Noller said. “In addition, with the expanded availability of vaccines, some VA facilities are holding mass vaccination clinics and allowing walk-in vaccinations. However, if appointments are not available locally, individuals can check other VA facility websites for additional information on vaccine efforts in other areas.”
Okay, I have an appointment, what do I need to bring with me?
Veterans should bring one form of photo identification with them to the VA to get vaccinated, VA officials told Task & Purpose. This applies to veterans who are not enrolled in the VA, and to spouses.
The VA guidance provided to Task & Purpose did not specify what kind of photo identification qualified, though when I called to set up my appointment I was advised to bring my driver’s licence, though other veterans have suggested bringing a copy of your DD-214, just in case you’re not enrolled in the VA healthcare system and need to provide proof of your service.
If in doubt, it might be a good idea just to bring multiple forms of ID and proof of service, or check with the clinic or medical center where you’ll get vaccinated and ask them what you need to have on hand.
Do my spouse and I have to go to the vaccination appointment together?
No, spouses do not need to go with their veteran spouse to be vaccinated.
If you start your vaccine dosage at the VA, must you finish it there?
“No. Individuals receiving their first dose of a two-dose vaccine at VA are not required to get their second dose at VA,” Noller said.
Even so, Noller stressed that the VA “strongly encourages” veterans (and their spouses) to receive both doses of the vaccine at the same site.
If veterans do choose to go to a different location for their second dose of the vaccine, they will need to provide proof of their first dose — which is given to veterans on a small white placard — so they can receive their second dose of the same vaccine within the appropriate period of time.
It’s also a good idea to take a photo of the front and back of your vaccination card, just in case you misplace it or forget to bring it with you to your second appointment — a VA employee suggested I do this during my recent vaccine appointment.
How many people have been vaccinated at the VA?
As of March 29, 2021, the Department of Veterans Affairs has fully vaccinated 1,974,816 people, according to the most recent data provided by the VA.
Veterans: Have you tried to schedule a COVID-19 vaccination through the VA? How did it go? Did you run into any problems, or face delays? Let us know in the comments, or email James@taskandpurpose.com.
Update: This article has been updated with a statement from a Veterans Affairs spokesperson confirming that widows and widowers of military veterans can get a COVID-19 vaccination through the VA.
Feature image: A Veterans Affairs employee prepares a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. (Department of Veterans Affairs)