More than 1,600 employees at VA medical facilities have coronavirus

More than 1,600 employees at the Veterans Health Administration have tested positive for coronavirus, the department said Wednesday.

Specifically, 1,604 VHA employees have been diagnosed with the virus, up from 1,347 positive cases on March 31.

The Veterans Health Administration is in the thick of a multi-front response to the coronavirus, both in treating veterans at various VA facilities across the country and as the nation’s “backup” health system.

As of Wednesday 14 VA medical center employees have died from complications due to the coronavirus, the department said.

Click on the points on the map to view the number of employees diagnosed with coronavirus at each VA medical facility. 

One employee worked in Ann Arbor, Detroit, two in Indianapolis, one in Houston, three in Reno, Nevada, one in Shreveport, Louisiana, two in New York, one in West Palm Beach, Florida, one in Denver and one in Los Angeles.

Eleven of the employees had no direct patient care role, VA spokeswoman Christina Noel said.

VA medical professionals are treating 4,261 veterans with the virus, according to public data posted to the department’s site. A total of 257 veterans have died from the virus.

The department said last week it had begun shifting personnel and resources to its facilities in regions that have been especially hard hit by the virus.

VA has deployed Disaster Emergency Medical Personnel System (DEMPS), a tool that allows the department to solicit credentialed medical professionals within its own workforce.

Read more: Veterans Affairs News

A first wave of VA professionals has been deployed to New Orleans where, as of Wednesday, the department had been treating 25 inpatients and 405 outpatient veterans.

VA is searching for additional volunteers to deploy to other “high-risk” regions. Volunteers who complete a 14-day deployment through the the Disaster Emergency Medical Personnel System are eligible for a $5,000 award, the department said.

“VA has great medical personnel throughout the nation supporting our veterans battling COVID-19,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said last week in a statement. “Some of our facilities need additional assistance and that’s why VA is taking a variety of prudent actions to properly staff for this emergency. The activation of DEMPS will help one of our facilities in a very challenging area have the additional staff they need to care for our nation’s veterans.”

Beyond treating veterans, VA serves as the nation’s “backup” when community health systems become overloaded during a pandemic. State and local governments can request assistance from the department through FEMA’s National Response Coordination Center, a process known as VA’s “fourth mission.”

As part of it’s “fourth mission,” the department made 1,500 beds available to FEMA, which are available to non-veteran patients at acute care and intensive care units at VA facilities across the country.

VA health facilities are treating non-veteran patients in at least six sites, while the department’s medical centers are also taking in patients from community nursing homes as well.

Three VA clinicians were placed on assignment in New Haven, Connecticut, to treat the region’s homeless population, the department said.

This comes as federal unions representing VA health professionals have called on the department to change their testing, screening and leave procedures as the number of sick employees continues to grow.

In a letter to Wilkie and Richard Stone, the executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, unions demanded more protections for their employees.

“Hospitals are reporting a dangerous shortage of [personal protective equipment], including masks, gowns and hand sanitizer, leading to preventable infections,” the unions said Monday. “Employees have already lost their lives due to inadequate PPE.”

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The unions cited 2019 and 2018 reports from VA’s inspector general, which had raised concerns with the department’s emergency cache program. VA stood up the program, which serves as a stockpile of emergency resources, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The IG said this stockpile program was ineffectively managed, meaning VHA leadership had no assurances resources would be ready to mobilize in the event of an emergency.

The unions, which included the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Federation of Federal Employees, also detailed their concerns with VA’s leave and exposure policies.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said employees who have been exposed to coronavirus may continue working if they’re asymptomatic and other staffing alternatives have been exhausted.

VA has said it’s following CDC protocols, but unions have taken issue with the guidance.

“This CDC healthcare employee exception subjects the VA workforce to unnecessary risk while
failing to hold managers at every level accountable for poor staffing plans and inadequate use of
ample Title 38 hiring,” the unions wrote.

VA has adamantly denied the unions’ accusations. Noel, the department’s spokeswoman, told Federal News Network last week VA facilities had necessary supplies and employees were using them.