Internal emails show VA hospitals rationing protective gear : Coronavirus Updates : NPR

Alastair Pike/AFP via Getty Images

A report by a Veterans Affairs inspector general, based on surprise inspections last month, found that many facilities did not have enough personal protective equipment in stock.

Alastair Pike/AFP via Getty Images

The Department of Veterans Affairs operates the nation’s largest health care network. Nine million veterinarians are enrolled in VA healthcare, and recently the department announced it would treat all veterans who need help during this crisis.

But VA health workers say they need help. At least seven VA staff members have died from the virus, and NPR has seen internal emails telling VA staff to use the same surgical mask for up to a week.

Since the outbreak began, VA workers’ unions have been sounding the alarm about protective gear shortages and understaffing. Sharon Lake, union president at Lyons VA in New Jersey, says caring for vets is a source of pride for the staff.

“They’ve taken it upon themselves to take care of the veterans. And they want to do their job, but supplies are needed,” she said.

Lake says many staff who transport coronavirus patients or feed them don’t feel safe, and she says nurses are stuck doing a lot of extra work because other staff don’t have no protective gear to enter COVID-19 wards.

“All VA facilities are equipped with essential items and supplies to manage cases of coronavirus, and all VA employees have the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), in accordance with CDC guidelines,” said VA spokeswoman Christina Noel told NPR.

But NPR has seen internal emails suggesting some staffers are now keeping the same surgical mask for a week. This may now be permitted with new CDC guidelines for this crisis, but this mask would have been single-use only a month ago.

“I’m really concerned about what I see in the VA,” said former VA secretary David Shulkin, who served in the Trump and Obama administrations. “Seven VA workers have now died of COVID 19, and over 1,100 are infected and that’s alarming.”

Shulkin points to a VA inspector general’s report, based on surprise inspections last month. He found that many facilities did not have enough PPE in stock.

The VA relies heavily on testing outside of its system, which sets a high bar for staff who want to get tested, leaving them wondering if they could spread the disease to their families. The VA has tens of thousands of vacancies in its healthcare system, putting even more pressure on staff.

“Staff need to feel safe and protected if they are to be able to care for veterans, and when staff fall ill at that number it is going to put additional stress on those who come to work and when people are overworked and under stress, they tend to make mistakes,” Shulkin said.

The VA may just be feeling the same staffing and mask shortages as the rest of the nation’s healthcare system. But Lake says she thinks the nation’s largest health care system can do better.

“Because our vets took care of us and we will take care of them. And what I ask of management is that they take care of the people who take care of veterans,” Lake said.

VA facilities serve as a backup health care system during national emergencies. VA hospitals are also seeing civilian patients in several hotspots across the country.

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