The Department of Veterans Affairs, which reported at least 400 dead veterans at its hospitals Friday, is under siege by employees, lawmakers and veterans organizations amid calls for the agency to do more to protect patients and staff.
Nearly 6,400 veterans have been infected, according to recent VA data. The toll on VA medical workers continues to climb, with at least 20 dead as of Thursday and an infection count among staff nearing 2,000, the agency said.
VA hospital workers who work closely with veterans have led at least nine demonstrations across the country demanding increased levels of protective personal equipment like masks, gowns and other items they say is in critically short supply.
That shortage puts them at risk, they say, and employees fear they are endangering their family members and veterans themselves, who are older than the general population and struggle with underlying health conditions.
“Veterans have finished their fight for their country. And now we’re fighting to give them care,” said John Corn, a member of the American Federation of Government Employees union local 2778 in Carrolton, Georgia, outside Atlanta.
Corn participated in a protest Friday morning at a VA outpatient clinic where he is a licensed practical nurse. Eleven staff members and a veteran rallied in a protest driven by equipment shortages, he said, while keeping mindful of six-feet social distancing guidelines.
Clinical staff are given one mask per 12-hour shift, which is soaking with sweat by the end of the shift, he said. Before the outbreak, he said, the masks would be replaced after each patient, and rationing exposes patients to an outbreak if an infected veteran happens to breath on the mask.
“Veterans are not the ones who should be suffering during this pandemic,” Corn told The Washington Post.
The nearby Atlanta VA Medical Center reported 139 infections and six deaths among patients, according to the most recent VA data.
The issue has prompted Senate Democrats to demand the White House use the Defense Production Act to make equipment for VA hospitals.
“Those who care for veterans should not be afraid to wake up every morning, go to work and help save veterans’ lives,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said in a Thursday letter signed by 15 other lawmakers.
At least one VA employee death — a nurse in Detroit — is being investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a spokesperson with the agency said. OSHA is already investigating VA amid accusations of lack of testing and safety equipment.
Agency spokeswoman Christina Noel has defended its policy of PPE “conservation,” telling The Associated Press that the agency “has not encountered any PPE shortages that have negatively impacted patient care or employee safety.”
Jeremy Butler, the chief executive of the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, pointed to a lack of transparency about VA’s mask supply, which VA itself has acknowledged struggling with as the pandemic worsened.
“I think VA is trying to complicate the issue by talking about the national distribution level rather than highlighting individual hospitals and clinics, where there are clearly shortages,” Butler said Friday.
Protective equipment shortfalls are a global issue, Butler acknowledged. “But during a crisis is not the time to cover up any deficiencies.”
VA hospital workers have pushed back on the agency’s defense, pointing to delayed protective equipment only issued when staffers and veterans fell ill.
No masks were issued at the Hampton VA Medical Center in Virginia until late March when an employee tested positive for the virus, said Sheila Elliot, the president of the AFGE local 2328. That was about two weeks after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic.
By then, the virus was already circulating and struck the rehabilitation clinic especially hard, with a cluster among addiction therapists, said Elliot, a clinical pharmacist specialist.
“I got sick in the line of duty trying to help veterans,” said a case manager at the hospital who tested positive for coronavirus infection, and declined to provide a name for fear of retribution. She was almost certainly infected in the days before leadership took the threat seriously, she said.
Nurses working in the COVID-19 unit reported receiving a N95 mask every three days, Elliot said.
At the Lyons VA Medical Center in New Jersey, supplies have fluctuated, fueling worry among staff that inadequate protection can hit employees with medical conditions hard, said Sharon Lake, a retired nursing assistant and president of the AFGE union local 1012.
Staff have reported shortages of everything from masks to hand sanitizer. “Some days they have it, some days they don’t,” she said.
“We have the lowest employee infection rate in the world. It is less than half of 1 percent,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said Wednesday on MSNBC.
But that number is calculated among all health agency employees, Noel said, which would include those who telework. She declined to provide the number of employees who work remotely, and has not provided a breakdown of infections among VA staff who work the closest to infected patients.
It was a rare glimpse of Wilkie, veterans advocates said. Even though VA has a role to absorb non-veteran patients in emergencies, and is involved with the White House’s coronavirus task force, he has been missing in action, said Vietnam Veterans of America president John Rowan.
“I have not been hearing much of anything besides ‘everything is fine,'” he said. “Apparently Wilkie has been hiding.”