Health care professionals across the board are under an enormous amount of pressure as the nation stumbles into battling the novel coronavirus pandemic. Between roadblocks to ordering tests, lack of ventilators, little or no personal protective equipment, and a load of collective exhaustion, health care workers—including the janitorial, cafeteria, and aid staff—are uniquely vulnerable to the virus. And as Military Times reports, health care workers for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) at a minimum of five sites have already died from coronavirus complications.
According to Military Times, VA department officials confirmed that seven staff members have died already, though names and titles have not been released by the department. Six out of the seven sites have been confirmed by officials, including at VA hospitals in Ann Arbor and Detroit, Michigan; Indianapolis, Indiana; Houston, Texas; and two in Reno, Nevada. The American Federation of Government Employees, a labor group that represents VA workers, confirmed that the seventh employee was based in Shreveport, Louisiana.
On Wednesday, 1,130 VA staffers have tested positive for the virus. As reported by Stripes, 3,265 VA patients have tested positive for the virus. More than 500 patients have been hospitalized, and 167 have died. To put that into perspective, just one week ago, only 500 staff and 2,000 veterans had tested positive. More than 1,000 workers have had to quarantine.
The AFGE’s National Veterans Affairs Council filed an imminent danger complaint about two weeks ago, highlighting concerns about personal protection equipment and quarantine measures, as reported by The Washington Post.
As reported by The Wall Street Journal, internal memos suggest that VA hospitals are facing a shortage when it comes to personal protective gear. The Journal, which reports reviewing excerpts of the memos, says one memo shared between VA officials included: “Soon, PPE will be rationed; one surgical mask issued per week, one N95 per day.” Another internal memo reportedly suggested that rationing was already happening with, for example, one mask per day if you worked with novel coronavirus patients, and just one per week if you worked in a nursing home.
“We wouldn’t send our soldiers off to war without the proper equipment,” Everett Kelley, national president of the AFGE, said as reported by the Post, “but that’s precisely the situation facing many of the federal workers on the front lines of this pandemic. Employees are literally risking their lives to do their jobs.” Kelley called for more protections and actions as soon as possible.
Spokesperson Christina Noel, press secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs, released a statement to WUSA9 claiming that all VA facilities are just fine in terms of equipment. “All VA facilities are equipped with essential items and supplies, and we are continually monitoring the status of those items to ensure a robust supply chain. VA facilities are using PPE in accordance with CDC guidelines, and all employees have the appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), as per those guidelines," she reportedly said in an emailed statement.
What can people at home do? In addition to reaching out to your local and state representatives, stay home as much as possible, wash your hands, and practice social distancing as much as possible when you do go out.