Workers Question VA's Preparedness to Fight Coronavirus Pandemic

VA Healthcare workers are questioning the effectiveness of the VA to protect veterans and healthcare workers during the coronavirus pandemic after a VA doctor tested positive for COVID-19

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Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare leaders are facing new questions about the department's ability to keep veterans and VA workers safe after one of its own doctors tested positive for the coronavirus.

The doctor is from a VA Medical Center in New York, according to a VA spokesperson. He is currently in home isolation in accordance with CDC guidelines.

More than 9 million veterans are served by the VA across the country, and 86,000 veterans use VA medical centers in San Diego and Imperial Counties.  

The San Diego County VA said it has no presumptive positive or positive COVID-19 cases as of March 17, but nationwide there are at least five positive cases and 33 presumptive positive cases. One veteran in Oregon died from COVID-19. 

The VA has put safety measures in place to prevent the spread of the disease, like asking patients to call before visiting so they can be screened over the phone.

Screening questions include:

1. Do you have a fever or worsening cough or shortness of breath or flu-like symptoms?  

2. Have you or a close contact traveled to an area with widespread or sustained community transmission of COVID-19 within 14 days of symptom onset?

3. Have you been in close contact with someone, including health care workers, confirmed to have COVID-19?

Veteran David Santos uses the VA in San Diego County.

"At the VA hospital there is a variety of young and old, so you really have to take these precautions to the extreme and be careful," he said.

Even before a VA doctor tested positive, the Veterans Health Administration unions expressed concern. A statement from the VHA read, in part:

“We health care workers in the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) system, deeply dismayed by the lack of preparations, planning, and communications so far in response to COVID-19, are calling on VHA management to work with us to ensure the national VA health facilities can safely handle COVID-19.”

The statement also called for optimal staffing, equipment, supplies, communication and education for workers.

A VA spokesperson told NBC7 in a statement:

“As America deals with COVID-19, VA has proactively implemented appropriate measures to ensure the safest health care environment for each Veteran, visitor and employees.”

Healthcare workers told NBC 7 another concern is the staffing and maintenance of limited isolation rooms in San Diego. The San Diego VA Medical Center told us they have nine such rooms and can convert more.

Santos thinks making sure VA healthcare workers get what they need to protect themselves and veterans is critical.

“That’s very important," he said.

And when it comes to his upcoming visit to the VA, Santos said, “There’s a good chance where I probably might want to reschedule, and just wait until it’s absolutely safe.”

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