VA activates 'fourth mission' to back up civilian hospitals during coronavirus

Abbie Bennett
March 30, 2020 - 12:27 pm
CoronavirusVA

Photo by 1st Sgt. Rodolfo Armando Barrios Quinones

The Department of Veterans Affairs has begun activating its fourth mission -- to serve as a backup for American hospitals in times of crisis. 

On March 29, VA announced it planned to open 50 hospital beds -- 35 acute care and 15 intensive care unit -- to non-veterans. 

Those beds are for non-COVID-19 patients, VA said, and the move is intended to help New York City hospitals better respond to virus cases.

FEMA received a request from the state of New York, and, as part of its fourth mission, VA was called on to help. 

"VA made its decision after determining this action would not negatively impact veteran care," the department said in a news release Sunday. 

The transfer of at least five non-COVID patients from community hospitals to the Manhattan and Brooklyn VAs was underway Sunday, and both hospitals continued to receive veteran patients, according to the department. 

“VA is proud to assist the City of New York while continuing its primary mission of caring for our nation’s veterans,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement.   

VA also is deploying "Mobile Vet Centers" to New York boroughs, San Francisco, New Orleans and Los Angeles -- all areas hit hard by the virus. 

The mobile care centers "serve as an extension of VA’s 300 brick-and-mortar vet centers across the country that provide a range of services, including individual, group, marriage and family counseling," the department said in an announcement March 30. 

The mobile units work to help veterans who may not otherwise seek VA services for counseling and mental health support, and staff can help those who might "be facing extreme isolation during this period of 'social distancing'" to prevent the spread of infection.

VA said mobile center staff "volunteer for these missions" and have deployed previously to natural disasters, shootings and other events. When working with the public, those employees are provided "the necessary protections to keep them and those they help remain safe," VA said in its announcement. 

“While all Americans are being instructed to limit their contact with others, our duty to protect the nation’s veterans has not ended,” Wilkie said. “Our Vet Center staff will help ensure we keep in contact with those veterans who need our care and attention and help reduce the anxiety some may be experiencing during this unique national emergency.”

One day after announcing aid for New York, VA said it was tracking 1,166 veterans who tested positive for the virus, and at least 27 veterans had died because of COVID-19. VA said it had administered over 10,000 tests nationwide.

VA is a last line of defense in the US against national medical emergencies like pandemics

The Department of Veterans Affairs cares for 9 million veterans across 141 medical centers and more than 1,000 clinics nationwide. But it's also expected to serve as a last line of defense in national medical emergencies.

VA's funding is protected, even in government shutdowns, and the agency is authorized to provide medical help, including beds, staff and supplies in emergencies. VA has deployed in the past for hurricane and other disaster response. 

VA is also part of a national team of federal agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services and FEMA, tasked with responding to national health crises. 

The most recently updated information on the number of beds VA has at its medical centers in the event of an emergency is specifically not publicly available. According to the 2006 pandemic plan, VA had about 20,000 beds available, with more in its long-term care facilities. But that number has certainly changed in the past 14 years. 

VA also has an Emergency Cache Program, which provides medical supplies and medicine nationwide until HHS supplies arrive, often as quickly as 24 hours after an emergency. Those caches are built to provide for thousands, VA told Congress previously, though watchdog reports last year showed the caches were not prepared to respond to a major disaster or crisis. 

VA officials declined to provide an update on the number of beds available, and VA's coronavirus plan released last week does not include the figure.

About half of all VA patients are older than 65, a population at elevated risk for infection, according to the CDC. 

VA has a guide for veterans on coronavirus, which includes that veterans who believe they are infected should call their local VA before they show up to the hospital.

To find your nearest Vet Center, click here or call the Vet Center hotline at 10877-927-8387.  

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If you or someone you know needs help, contact the Veteran Crisis Line 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 (select option 1 for a VA staff member). Veterans, service members or their families also can text 838255 or go to veteranscrisisline.net.

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Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

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