A Northern California veteran has become the Department of Veterans Affairs’ first patient with the coronavirus, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said Wednesday.
The VA Medical Center in Palo Alto, California, is housing the veteran on a portion of the campus set aside to treat former service members diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus, Wilkie told members of the House Appropriations Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Subcommittee.
The patient, who arrived at the facility March 2, was transported there by request, not wanting to stay at a facility outside the VA, according to VA officials.
A spokeswoman for the hospital said the patient is being cared for in isolation by “staff who are specially trained on the latest Centers for Disease Control treatment guidelines and utilizing personal protective equipment and infection control techniques.”
“The risk of transmission is low,” said Armenthis Lester, chief communication manager for the VA Sierra Pacific Network.
VA officials told members of Congress that they are committed to treating the veteran and prepared to take in more as the outbreak expands.
Wilkie and Dr. Richard Stone, executive director of the Veterans Health Administration, said VA has been readying for widespread infection since the end of January.
“We train for this, not only for national disasters, we train for epidemics, moving our supply chain in preparation before this became a national issue,” Wilkie said. “We have been ... putting in place the course of action we had for Ebola and H1N1 [influenza virus] in the past.”
The VA, Stone said, has roughly 1,000 “negative airflow" hospital rooms — facilities with specialized ventilation systems that help contain infection by allowing air to circulate inside the room but not escape it.
He said while 60 percent of these specialized isolation rooms often are in use, VA is preparing to ensure that many will be available if needed.
VA also has stepped up screening for the coronavirus outside its facilities, particularly its nursing home facilities, according to Stone.
“Our special concern is that we operate 135 nursing homes serving over 8,000 vulnerable veterans. We must protect them. At the risk of some inconvenience, we are screening everyone coming in, with our most robust in the state of Washington,” Stone said.
Across the country, VA medical facilities are taking steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which has sickened at least 80 people in the United States and killed nine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Several VA medical centers have barred visitors from their nursing home facilities and inpatient wards, primarily to ward off influenza infections in locations where that disease is spreading, but also to prevent contact with COVID-19.
Wilkie said VA remains in “constant contact now with the CDC and National Institutes of Health as well as the presidential task force” on the virus.
Stone said VA has had a 12-person team at Travis Air Force Base, California, assisting with screenings of U.S. evacuees from China and Japan who remain in quarantine at the military base.
Other measures VA is taking to contain or stop the spread of the deadly disease is order more testing kits and designing their own kits, Stone said.
“That is being done all over the country now. In the near future, there will be robust testing available," he said.
Lester recommended that people take precautions against the virus, to include washing hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, using hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol, staying home when sick and avoiding touching eyes or nose or mouth.
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.
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.