VA acknowledges it’s ‘not there yet’ with coronavirus testing for employees

The Department of Veterans Affairs does not have on-demand coronavirus testing for its employees up and running just yet, despite its best intentions to screen anyone who presented symptoms or believed they had been exposed.

VA has tested about 12% of its health workforce for the virus, Richard Stone, executive-in-charge at the Veterans Health Administration, told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Wednesday afternoon.

His comments contrast with those the department made one week ago before another congressional committee, when Jennifer MacDonald, chief consultant to the deputy VA undersecretary for health, told a House appropriations subcommittee any symptomatic employee or anyone who wanted a test could be screened.

“We’re not hearing that,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), the committee’s ranking member, said. “We’re not hearing that from the folks on the ground. We’re still hearing that they’re not being tested.”

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“Senator, you are exactly right, we’re not there yet,” Stone said. “Although we’ve tested over 12% of our employees, and it is our intent to have on-demand testing for all of our employees, we’re not there yet.”

VA’s labs have the capacity to process 60,000 coronavirus tests a week, Stone said, but the department lacked the swabs and cartridges necessary to fully screen employees.

“Simply when we issued the guidance to go to on-demand testing for our employees, we ran out of swabs because of some problems with UPS shipping,” he said. “That was a national problem with the crashing of UPS systems for a weekend. We have now recovered from that. Right now, we have about 60,000 tests available, but we do not have the ability to institute on-demand testing for our employees. It is our intent to get there.”

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Stone’s comments track with those both members of Congress and VA employees have made about the testing inconsistencies they’ve heard or experienced across the department’s workforce.

“Thousands of VA employees have put themselves in harm’s way,” Secretary Robert Wilkie said. “They deserve the thanks of the American people. We’ve opened our hospitals. We have sent people into extremely dangerous situations. They’ve responded magnificently. We actually have a lower absentee rate and a lower leave-request rate this year than we did last year, because people have responded to the call to duty as they always do.”

According to VA’s latest public data, 97 employees currently have active coronavirus cases, and 32 employees have died from complications due to the virus.

The majority of VA employees, at least according to the department’s public data account, have recovered or reached a “convalescence” stage.

Employee testing was one of several topics members on the Senate VA committee broached with Wilkie and other agency officials on Wednesday.

Congress gave VA an additional $19.6 billion in emergency supplemental funding under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The department has spent a little more than $1 billion of that supplement on medical services so far during the pandemic, Wilkie said.

VA said it’s hopeful Congress will give the department more transfer authority to move supplemental funding to different areas of need.