Seven Veterans Affairs health care staffers have already died from coronavirus complications and more than 1,100 more forced into quarantine in recent weeks, adding further stress to the already taxed medical system.
Department officials on Wednesday confirmed the deaths have occurred among staffers in at least five sites: two in Reno, Nev., and one each at VA hospitals in Ann Arbor, Mich., Detroit, Indianapolis and Houston. The location of the seventh death wasn’t immediately known.
No further information has been officially released, but news reports in several of those communities have given more details on the victims. The Reno Gazette Journal reported Wednesday that the latest VA employee death was an intensive care unit employee who had worked at the VA Reno site for the last seven years.
In a call with veterans groups on Wednesday afternoon, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said that a seventh VA employee has died in the last few hours. No other information was given.
VA press secretary Christina Noel said all of the sick employees are being watched carefully.
“In accordance with CDC guidelines and the employees’ clinical status, the employees are all in isolation, mitigating further risk of transmission to other patients and staff,” she said.
On March 27, the total number of known VA employees who had tested positive for coronavirus was less than 200. Wednesday’s update put the new number at 1,130.
The employee illnesses comes as VA officials are already working to bring 1,500 non-veteran patients into the department’s nationwide health care system as part of their federal charge to serve as a backup for overwhelmed local hospitals.
“The 400,000 men and women of the Department of Veterans Affairs are in this fight,” Wilkie said during a White House press conference this weekend. “We are in the fight not only for the nine and a half million veterans who are part of our service, but we are in the fight for the people of the United States.”
Department officials have insisted for days that VA is prepared for the extra workload and adequately staffed and resource to respond to the pandemic, which has already killed more than 14,000 Americans.
But health care advocates and union officials have disputed those assertions, saying they have already seen widespread shortages in protective equipment and significant strain on VA health care staff.
“Today we have VA registered nurses caring for as many as five intensive-care unit patients at once, and nurses caring for patients without access to clean gloves, gowns, and N95 masks,” said Corey Lanham, mid-Atlantic collective bargaining director for National Nurses United, which represents 12,000 nurses at 23 different VA sites.
“The inaction of this administration is resulting in unnecessary deaths of our health care workers and putting patients at risk. The death of just one registered nurse or health care worker is one death too many, and to see so many health care workers die or become ill due to negligence is heartbreaking.”
On Wednesday, VA officials reported more than 3,200 positive coronavirus cases among veteran patients in the system and 167 deaths, nearly all of those in the last two weeks.
Even before the outbreak, the department had more than 40,000 vacant staff positions across the country, a figure that had been a source of criticism and conflict with lawmakers.
VA leaders had insisted that much of that gap was due to normal workforce turnover and hard-to-recruit posts like mental health care. But critics on Capitol Hill said officials were shifting too many resources to private-care contracts instead of increasing recruiting efforts, leaving some department sites understaffed.
Now, the mandatory quarantines for VA staffers who test positive for coronavirus could be magnifying those gaps even more.
According to VA officials, at least 16 department health care sites have 20 or more staffers on medical leave because of positive virus tests.
The New Orleans VA Medical Center — which has nearly 400 positive cases and 25 deaths among patients there — has the most, with 92. Four VA sites in New York state have a combined 167 staffers on leave. A nearby site in East Orange, N.J., has 29 more.
Department officials have cancelled nearly all elective surgeries at VA sites nationwide and are asking patients and families to call ahead to hospitals before visiting for any reason, to ensure their own safety and that of staff.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.