Veterans Affairs received a shipment of 500,000 protective masks from the South Korean government on Tuesday, a gift that will be used to bolster the department’s imperiled coronavirus prevention supply reserves.
In a statement, officials from South Korea’s Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs said the donation was linked to the “noble sacrifice made 70 years ago by the American veterans of the Korean War.” The masks arrived at Joint Base Andrews Naval Air Facility in Maryland Tuesday morning.
“These masks symbolize our countries’ alliance and the appreciation of the Korean people who have never forgotten the American veterans’ service and sacrifice,” Minister Sam-duck Park said in a statement. “We are always grateful for them.”
More than 800 patients in the department's care have died from the virus since early March.
The international aid comes as VA officials have struggled in recent weeks to maintain personal protective equipment supplies for some employees.
VA leadership has insisted that reserves of masks, gloves and medical gowns have been “adequate” over the last two months as the department has seen a rising number of coronavirus cases and fatalities.
However, they have also acknowledged rationing supplies for some workers at certain facilities.
Richard Stone, executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, in late April said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had seized a shipment of more than 5 million masks headed for department hospitals, a move which caused some shortages.
However, days after his comments, FEMA officials announced nearly all of that shipment would be routed to VA facilities, along with additional equipment.
Earlier this month, department officials issued new guidance promising personal protective equipment to every health care worker providing direct care to veterans at VA facilities or at home. Previously, that was limited to personnel dealing only with high-risk patients.
Federal union officials have disputed VA’s assertions that they had enough supplies, saying some members have been forced to reuse masks or go without adequate protection.
“I’m afraid for my co-workers and I’m afraid for my family, said one VA nurse.
The masks included in Tuesday’s delivery — N95 protective masks — have been in short supply worldwide as health officials have scrambled to deal with the fast-spreading coronavirus. In a statement, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the masks will be used in facilities across the United States.
“So many years later, we are joined in another just and noble cause of containing a pandemic that threatens our citizens’ lives and livelihoods and poses a grave threat to the veterans we have both pledged to protect,” Wilkie said. “This gesture has indeed touched the hearts of American veterans and we are grateful to have such a close ally in these uncertain times.”
South Korean officials said the masks were available for donation because of a decrease in coronavirus cases in their country, which saw the bulk of its pandemic impact months before the United States.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has seen more than 11,000 cases of coronavirus among patients in the last two months, including 921 fatalities. Nationwide, more than 1.3 million Americans have contracted the disease and more than 80,000 individuals have died from complications related to it.