Commentary

Commentary: VA is responding to the coronavirus outbreak

Robert Wilkie (@SecWilkie) is secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

With the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic around the world, many Americans are concerned about the impact it will have on our healthcare system. But every American can be assured that the administration of President Donald Trump is bringing the full power of the federal government to slow the spread of the virus and keep them safe.

The President declared a national emergency and stopped all travel from China and Europe, where the virus has spread the most. President Trump started quarantine efforts for Americans returning home and is working in close partnership with state and local leadership of both political parties across America. These are important steps that have made us all safer.

I’m proud that the Department of Veterans Affairs is a key part of the President’s efforts to protect the American people. With more than 330,000 health care professionals across the nation, we’re one of the largest providers of health care in the world, with special capabilities that can help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

As soon as the outbreak began, President Trump directed this administration to hit the ground running. In fact, before there was even a single confirmed case in the United States, the VA was already conducting emergency preparedness exercises. And thanks to the president’s decisive leadership, VA facilities have enough supplies to handle an influx of patients.

We are taking new precautions, like screening every veteran who walks through the doors of a VA facility for flu-like symptoms. We urge any Veteran with symptoms such as fever, cough or shortness of breath to call their local VA facility right away.

We are administering coronavirus tests to veterans who have been in close contact with the virus or who live in an area where it is spreading. We’ve already administered more than 800 tests, and we’re ready for thousands more, if necessary.

Sadly, we are seeing cases where our heroes have tested positive for the coronavirus. In those cases, we are providing them with the care that they need and that they earned while serving our country.

We are taking special care of two of the most vulnerable groups of veterans: veterans in nursing homes and those with spinal injuries. The VA itself runs 134 nursing homes where thousands of Veterans live. These Veterans are mostly older, and many have multiple health conditions that make them vulnerable to the coronavirus. To prevent the spread of the virus among these veterans, VA has adopted a “no visitor” policy, except for when patients are in the last stages of life in a hospice unit. While we recognize how difficult this policy must be for thousands of American families, it is in their best interest that we keep their loved ones safe.

From the very beginning of the VA, we have followed through on the task President Lincoln gave to us in his Second Inaugural Address: “to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.”

Three of our missions are derived from that historic statement: providing health care services, ensuring Veterans get the benefits they’ve earned, and making sure they are never forgotten by maintaining national cemeteries that honor their service and sacrifice to this nation.

But for all that we’re doing for our nation’s veterans and their families, VA is preparing once more to take on its fourth mission of assisting non-VA health care systems if they hit their capacity to care for patients.

The VA has proudly served as a frontline responder after natural disasters such as the hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico and our southern states, and VA is preparing to play that role again during this national emergency.

In fact, we have already deployed some of our staff to assist the Department of Health and Human Services, and we are working directly with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal partners to monitor the outbreak.

The American people can be proud that we have the most comprehensive veterans assistance of any nation in the world. And all of us can be assured that the VA is ready to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

To find the VA facility nearest you, please visit VA.gov.

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