Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie confirmed during his testimony on Capitol Hill Wednesday that one Veteran is being treated for the coronavirus at a VA facility in Palo Alto, California, and said the agency has a section of the campus set up to receive Veterans who have the virus.
"We began moving on supply chain and preparation really before this became a national issue. Case in point is the one Veteran, that we know of, who has this virus. We prepared a swath, a section of our Palo Alto campus to receive Veterans who have this virus. We set it up for that and that Veteran is being taken care of there," Wilkie told lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee.
This is the first time coronavirus has directly touched the second largest federal agency, which provides care to Veterans at 1,243 health care facilities across the country.
After the hearing, Wilkie, who is part of the White House task force addressing the potential of a pandemic, stressed that while there is only one known coronavirus case involving a Veteran, VA staff and facilities are well prepared to handle the outbreak should it continue to spread.
"We rehearse all the time, for epidemics and natural disasters — we are constantly rehearsing and just change the name on whatever we are dealing with ... if it's Ebola, if it's H1-N1, that's how we deal with it," he told CNN.
Despite some complaints from local health officials in California about a lack of kits used to test for the virus, Wilkie told CNN Wednesday that he is not aware of any such reports coming from VA facilities.
"We do all sorts of things, we have questionnaires, we take temperatures ... we are using our own resources," he said. Asked if any VA facilities have requested additional testing kits, Wilkie said: "Not that I know of, because, again, we have one case so far."
The VA has about 1,000 testing kits, Veterans Health Administration head Dr. Richard Stone told House lawmakers Wednesday, adding that the department plans to order more. Each kit is capable of testing hundreds of people.
Wilkie's comments come as health officials say the US should be proactive when it comes to testing for the novel coronavirus.
"Yes. The answer is yes and I feel strongly about that," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told lawmakers Wednesday when asked if the US should be proactive with testing in hospitals, rather than waiting for people to come and be tested.
Negotiators in Congress also struck a deal Wednesday on a sweeping spending package to dedicate billions to dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, according to two sources involved with the talks.
The White House is expected to back the deal, which is expected to be voted on by the House of Representatives later Wednesday.
Meanwhile, VA spokesperson Christina Mandreucci told CNN on Wednesday that the agency is coordinating with federal health officials to ensure Veterans "benefit from the latest prevention, testing and treatment protocols and develop emergency management plans for medical centers."
"While the Department of Health and Human Services is leading the federal government's COVID-19 response efforts, VA is monitoring the situation through its Emergency Management Coordination Cell and collaborating with public health officials from HHS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ensure Veterans benefit from the latest prevention, testing and treatment protocols and develop emergency management plans for medical centers," Mandreucci added.