As death toll reaches 800, all VA staff treating patients will get masks, internal memo says

Abbie Bennett
May 07, 2020 - 12:12 pm
Coronavirus

U.S. Army photo by Spc. Miguel Pena

At least 811 veterans have died of the coronavirus, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. More than 10,000 VA patients, including veterans and employees, have tested positive.

After more than a month of VA staff reporting severe shortages or an outright lack of personal protective gear, and internal memos that showed rationing, department leaders finally began, at least in part, to recognize "austerity" measures taking place in VA hospitals nationwide. But that was after weeks of outright denial of any shortages at all. VA officials said staff reports of shortages were "false allegations." 

Previous VA internal memos showed staff treating COVID-19 patients limited to one mask per day, and other staff -- even those treating patients particularly vulnerable to the virus -- were limited to one mask per week. Now, a memo dated May 1 says all VA staff treating patients -- not just those who have tested positive for the virus -- will receive masks, as part of new guidance requiring face coverings for all staff and patients and anyone else inside a VA medical facility.

"All individuals entering a (Veterans Health Administration) facility have the option to bring their own face covering or be provided one by VA for the duration of their time on campus," the memo reads. "VA staff that require additional respiratory protection to provide direct patient care (enter a room, interact within 6 feet) and/or evaluate any suspected or confirmed COVID-19 infected patients will receive appropriate (personal protective equipment) including surgical masks and/or N95 respirators or (powered air-purifying respirators)."

VA staff conducting home visits to veterans for at-home care also will be provided "appropriate respiratory protection PPE," the memo said.

All other staff, trainees, volunteers, veterans, inpatient residents and visitors are now required to wear a face covering while at VA facilities, the memo continued. 

"Face coverings," as the memo defines them, are "normally cloth and are not considered PPE" but "must cover the mouth and nose, fit snugly, allow for breathing without restriction and be laundered daily." 

In mid-April, Veterans Health Administration executive Dr. Richard Stone announced easing some equipment rationing, but not all VA medical staff were being provided PPE at that time. 

For weeks, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have called on VA leaders to provide adequate personal protective gear to VA medical staff who said they weren't getting it. A group of lawmakers led by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, called on President Donald Trump's administration to use the Defense Production Act to supply VA with masks and other protective equipment. 

This week, Tester celebrated VA's new PPE guidance.

“Ensuring our VA health care workers’ safety during this global pandemic must be a top priority,” he said. “Getting critical PPE to better protect our brave nurses and doctors on the front lines is an essential step in slowing the spread of the virus and keeping our communities healthy. VA’s decision — a long time coming — means a safer environment for vulnerable veterans who are at a higher risk for developing complications from infection.”

VA also plans to provide PPE, staff and testing support to state-run veteran nursing homes, admitting more than 100 patients from those facilities to its hospitals so far and deploying nearly 400 medical staff to support those state- and community-run facilities. 

Members of Congress became increasingly frustrated in recent weeks as cases continued to grow at VA and staff continued to report supply shortages, especially since they said VA leaders were refusing to provide information on the number of PPE supplies the department had on hand. 

Union leaders representing thousands of VA employees accused the department of "endangering" veteran patients and VA staff at least in part because of a lack of protective supplies. Those accusations led to a Department of Labor investigation

As of Thursday, VA reported more than 10,000 cases of the virus, including veterans and employees. More than 800 veterans had died and at least 25 VA medical staff. 

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