VA doctor tested positive for COVID-19 but still saw patients before quarantine

Abbie Bennett
March 17, 2020 - 11:48 am
BrooklynVA

Department of Veterans Affairs

A Brooklyn Veterans Affairs Medical Center doctor tested positive for COVID-19 last week and saw patients and worked with other staff before he knew he had been infected. 

VA officials in New York confirmed that an "employee tested presumptive positive for the novel coronavirus" last week, but wouldn't provide further details and cited privacy concerns, even after repeated requests for confirmation that the employee was a doctor and treated patients while infected. 

"Due to privacy concerns, we cannot provide this information as it would make the employee easily identifiable," Steve Piork, New York VA Public Affairs director, told Connecting Vets. 

The doctor is the first known case of a VA employee with the coronavirus, though multiple VA employees told Connecting Vets that testing is in short supply at VA medical centers for patients or employees. 

VA officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the total number of VA employees who have tested positive. 

"On March 11, 2020, one New York Harbor Veterans Affairs Medical Center employee tested presumptive positive for COVID-19. In accordance with CDC guidelines and the patient’s clinical status, the veteran is currently in home isolation, mitigating further risk of transmission to other patients and staff,” Piork said. 

Piork declined to say whether the staff or patients the doctor was treating were notified, saying only "in all cases when VA employees or patients present with COVID-19 symptoms, they are quickly isolated to ensure patient and employee safety." 

A memo to VA New York Health Center employees and obtained by Connecting Vets specifically said those who interacted with the infected employee "are being contacted and the risk of infection is being assessed. Be assured that we are doing everything possible to protect our patients and staff from further infection." 

James Fitzgerald, deputy director of the New York City Veterans Alliance, said the employee treated patients for two days after they were exposed to someone with the virus. 

VA began banning visitors from some of its medical centers and clinics this week and as of March 17 was tracking at least 38 cases of veterans in 15 states who tested positive, or presumptively positive, for the virus after administering "over 100" tests. 

The change comes after VA already locked down visitation at its 134 nursing homes and 24 spinal-cord injury/disorder centers, which care for a total of 65,000 veterans vulnerable to the virus nationwide. 

About half of VA’s patients are older than 65, a population at increased risk for infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control. 

For those who believe they may be ill, VA is asking veterans to call before they arrive at a VA medical facility. 

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

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