Understaffed Veterans Affairs scrambles to confront COVID-19

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The Department of Veterans Affairs, which runs the nation’s largest integrated health care system, is confronting the COVID-19 pandemic seriously understaffed, with only limited protocols in place to protect its millions of elderly patients.

“My concern is the social spread” of COVID-19, said Joe Bello, a Navy veteran who receives care from a VA facility in the Bronx, New York, where two patients are already under home quarantine with suspected COVID-19. “You get one veteran who is infected and who shows up at the VA for treatment, thinking maybe it’s the flu. As of this morning, the Veterans Health Administration had five confirmed cases of COVID-19 among its patients, with another 25 presumed positive cases. On Saturday, the agency had its first fatality when a patient in their 70s died at the VA hospital in Portland, Oregon, due to complications from the new coronavirus.

The VA’s patients are disproportionately elderly – roughly half of the 9 million veterans who use the VA’s network of more than 170 hospitals are at least 65 years old – and many have war-related health conditions that could make them more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Data published by the agency in February shows the VA is short 44,000 health care professionals, including 2,700 doctors and 11,300 nurses and nursing assistants. The VA is beset by “large staffing shortages, including physicians and registered nurses,” according to a September report from the Government Accountability Office.

The VA’s inspector general has also said the agency’s emergency cache of medicine is in disarray and there are only limited numbers of coronavirus tests available for patients and staff, including those who care for vulnerable patients in government nursing homes.

VA spokesperson Christina Mandreucci told Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting: “The department’s COVID-19 emergency preparedness exercises began weeks before the first case was confirmed in the US, and VA facilities are equipped with essential items and supplies to handle an influx of coronavirus cases and are operating normally with additional safeguards.” She said the agency “has plans in place to protect everyone who gets care, visits or works at one of our facilities.”

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