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VA under fire as coronavirus infections among Veterans, staff surge

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The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is coming under fire as the number of Veterans and health care workers infected with coronavirus within its system continues to mount.

Critics say the department is not doing enough to protect both Veterans and workers and is being opaque about supply shortages, death rates and other challenges in confronting the crisis.

More than 6,000 VA patients have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and 400 have died. Meanwhile, more than 2,000 VA health care workers have gotten the coronavirus, with 20 deaths.

The numbers as well as reports of equipment rationing have left lawmakers and Veterans groups demanding answers from the department and the White House coronavirus task force.

“They are the second largest agency within the federal government,” said Jeremy Butler, the CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

“So if there's anyone that should be a part of this national conversation coming out of administration, it's the VA. But we don't see any VA representation at the president's daily coronavirus briefings. We're not seeing anywhere near the level of media and public outreach from the VA like we see with the Department of Defense, who's also on the front lines of this,” he added.

Officials have defended the department’s response. In an emailed statement, VA press secretary Christina Noel said the department’s personal protective equipment (PPE) “practices are keeping Veterans and employees safe during challenging times, and the numbers prove it.”

She cited an infection rate for Veterans Health Administration employees of less than 1 percent, compared with 2.1 percent at Detroit’s Henry Ford Health System and 4.4 percent at the University of Washington Medicine.

“We understand that this national emergency has generated concern among some employees, but the department continues to be successful in helping America fight COVID-19,” she said.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal this month, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie acknowledged VA health centers did not have PPE for an “optimal situation” because normal supply chains “cannot be maintained in a once-in-a-century crisis.”

But the department had enough equipment to follow crisis guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he added.

In a second interview with the Journal published Wednesday, Wilkie acknowledged the department was slow to publicly disclose the extent of its mask shortages but suggested criticism is a matter of hindsight.

“It’s easy to be wise after the event,” he said.

“Are there a lot of things I would want to have that we had to disperse to the rest of the country because they were suffering? Sure,” Wilkie added. “Do I have what I need to combat this? Yes.”

Wilkie’s comment came after several news outlets reported on internal memos that showed the VA rationing protective gear such as N95 respiratory masks even as VA officials publicly said it faced no shortages.

In addition to news reports, a March report from the VA’s inspector general also said “facility leaders expressed concerns related to supplies needed to test patients for COVID-19” and “acknowledged low inventory of personal protective equipment for staff.”

As of Friday, the VA reported 2,003 Veterans Health Administration employees confirmed to have COVID-19 and 20 deaths.

Shortages of PPE have beset hospitals nationwide. But top Democrats this past week said issues at the VA have been exacerbated by “a broken federal procurement and distribution process.”

In a letter to White House coronavirus task force head Vice President Pence, Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee ranking member Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and 15 Democratic colleagues urged greater use of the Defense Production Act to get supplies for the VA.

“Our nation made promises to provide the care our Veterans earned through their service to defend the freedoms we all hold dear. The administration's slow response and lack of a coordinated nationwide effort undermines the services the VA can provide Veterans,” said the letter, co-signed by former presidential candidates Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).

“VA health care personnel from across the country are reaching out for help because they are afraid for themselves and afraid for their patients,” the letter added. “Those who care for Veterans should not be afraid to wake up every morning, go to work and help save Veterans’ lives.”

Another letter from Senate Democrats this past week to Wilkie led by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) expressed concern that VA guidance “may be driven not by best practices for VA staff and patients, but by PPE shortages throughout the system.”

The letters followed one earlier this month from House Democrats that asked Pence and acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought to “immediately allow the Department of Veterans Affairs ... to cooperate with Congress” in fighting the coronavirus.

The letter, organized by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.), said information the VA is giving his committee in briefings “stands in stark contrast to what we have heard from VA employees and read in the media regarding PPE shortages at VA medical facilities.”

Pence, for his part, has touted the VA’s response to the crisis as a success, claiming that coronavirus cases have plateaued.

“We are also very proud of our team at the VA,” Pence said Wednesday at the daily White House coronavirus briefing. “The VA has addressed its capacity issues. It’s not seen cases among the Veterans in its facilities increase, so they are deploying teams to focus on nursing homes.”

The next day, the VA reported one of its biggest single-day increases in cases for patients so far. As of Friday, the department said it had 6,474 positive coronavirus cases among Veterans and 400 inpatient deaths.

Terrence Hayes, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), said his organization “understands the difficulty that the department, along with other health care systems nationwide, are having as it pertains to securing proper protective equipment for its medical professionals and staff.”

“The VA has assured us on numerous occasions that all essential medical staff have the required PPE to ensure the health and safety of our Veterans and themselves during this pandemic,” he said in a statement. “The VFW will continue to monitor this situation and hold VA accountable during this challenging and unprecedented time because our Veterans’ health remains paramount.”

Other organizations were less diplomatic.

The VA “is just making stuff up,” said Rick Weidman, executive director for policy and government affairs at Vietnam Veterans of America. “They're denying, denying, denying, and just like it's an Agent Orange claim, deny, deny until we all die.”

VA leaders have been holding weekly calls with Veterans organizations, but Weidman dismissed the calls as uninformative.

Weidman said he is concerned Veterans who need to be hospitalized are being told to stay home because of the PPE shortage.

"What they have been doing is telling people, 'Don’t come in. Call.' And when people call, they ask what their symptoms are, and they say, 'Listen, just stay home and rest and let us know if it gets a whole lot worse,'" he said. "One of their problems, why they're telling people not to come in, is because of their shortage of PPE."

Veterans groups are also expressing concern about an analysis released this past week of the use of an anti-malaria drug to treat COVID-19 patients at VA medical centers, saying it is indicative of the larger problem of the department not protecting Veterans well enough.

President Trump has touted the drug, hydroxychloroquine, as a “game changer,” but the analysis found primary outcomes for COVID-19 patients treated with it resulted in higher death rates and the need for mechanical ventilation.

“It kind of all ties into this lack of communication and transparency from the VA, but now I feel like it's even ratcheted up to another level of seriousness because we're talking about testing an unproven drug on Veterans with seemingly dire results and consequences but getting very little information from the VA on the process,” Butler, the CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said.

“It is troubling that it seems there could be a connection between the issues that are being highlighted at the president's level and the lack of communication from the VA,” he added.

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