'We're not there yet' with COVID-19 tests for staff, VA leaders tell Congress

Abbie Bennett
June 08, 2020 - 11:52 am
U.S. Army Pfc. Alandes T. Rowsey, a combat medic specialist assigned to the 223rd Engineer Battalion, Mississippi National Guard, administers a COVID-19 test at the Mississippi State Veterans Home in Kosciusko, Miss., May 15, 2020.

U.S. Army National Guard photo by Spc. Jovi Prevot

On May 28, Department of Veterans Affairs officials told House lawmakers VA had "adequate testing" and employees could get tested, too. Less than a week later, VA leaders would say the opposite.

Members of Congress pushed back on that. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Penn., and others said VA staff told them they were denied tests. For weeks, staff at medical centers in several states told Connecting Vets the same thing -- they were denied tests even though they were regularly exposed to COVID-19 and, in a few cases, even when they were symptomatic. VA officials maintained that employees could get tested. 

"Our workforce has had what they need throughout the entire response," Jennifer MacDonald, VA chief consultant to the deputy undersecretary for health, told lawmakers during a hearing on Capitol Hill, later adding that VA had "adequate testing" and any staff with symptoms, or anyone who wanted a test, could have one.

But on June 3, VA leaders appeared to contradict those earlier assurances.

"We're not hearing that," Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., Senate Veterans Affairs Committee ranking member said during the hearing. "We're not hearing that from the folks on the ground. We're still hearing that they're not being tested." 

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie touted the department's low staff infection rate, "less than one half of one percent," he said.

VA has so far tested about 12 percent of its staff, Veterans Health Administration head Dr. Richard Stone told lawmakers.

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

The department is capable of processing about 60,000 COVID-19 tests each week, Stone said, but blamed a lack of staff screening on a shortage of the swabs and cartridges necessary for the tests, which he said was a UPS issue.

"When we issued guidance to go to on-demand testing for our employees, we ran out of swabs because of some problems with UPS shipping," Stone said. "That was a national problem, with the crashing of UPS systems for a weekend. We have not 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's our intent to get there." 

Stone did not give a timeline for when that testing capability would be available. VA officials have pledged repeatedly that on-demand testing would be made available for staff.

Wilkie praised department frontline medical staff for their role in coronavirus response.

"Thousands of VA employees put themselves in harm's way," Wilkie told lawmakers. "They deserve the thanks fo the American people ... We have sent people into extremely dangerous situations. They have 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.”

Though Wilkie acknowledged staff in "extremely dangerous situations," VA has maintained that none of its staff need hazard pay for their work during the pandemic. 

VA staff have also told Connecting Vets they were not allowed to take leave during the pandemic because some areas were short-staffed, and if they took leave they were penalized. 

As of June 8, VA had 1,631 staff cases of the coronavirus. Of those, 118 cases are considered "active." At least 33 VA employees have died of the virus, according to department data. At least 22 VA medical centers have had at least one employee die of the virus. VA officials said the department has administered more than 215,000 tests nationwide. About 7.3 percent of those were positive. At least 1,343 VA patients have died of complications related to the virus. 

Some employees and union leaders have blamed lack of personal protective equipment -- a shortage VA leaders denied for months, though internal memos showed rationing -- for staff illness. A Department of Labor investigation is examining allegations VA "endangered" employees and patients because of protective gear shortages.

On June 9, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee is set to hold a hearing specifically on VA's supply chain, which leaders say was interrupted during the pandemic, leading to protective gear rationing. 

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Are you a veteran, family member or VA employee dealing with the coronavirus? Contact Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett. If you require secure communications, email abbierbennett@protonmail.com.