A doctor at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus last week, after seeing patients and working alongside other staff members before knowing he had the virus.
VA officials confirmed Friday that an “employee tested presumptive positive for the novel coronavirus” on March 11, but they would say little else about the case, citing privacy concerns.
The employee is the first known VA worker to have contracted the virus.
“On March 11, 2020, one New York Harbor Veterans Affairs Medical Center employee tested presumptive positive for COVID-19. In accordance with CDC guidelines and the patient’s clinical status, the veteran is currently in home isolation, mitigating further risk of transmission to other patients and staff,” Steve Piork, director of the VA New York Public Affairs Office, told Military Times.
Piork declined to provide details about the employee’s role at the facility, citing privacy concerns, or say whether staff or patients were notified of potential exposure.
A memo distributed to VA New York Health Center employees and obtained by the New York Post said the employee was “doing well,” and “those who interacted with the employee are being contacted.”
“The risk of infection is being assessed,” the memo stated. “Be assured that we are doing everything possible to protect our patients and staff from further infection.”
James Fitzgerald, an Afghanistan War veteran and deputy director of the New York City Veterans Alliance, a group that represents roughly 225,000 veterans, said Wednesday the employee treated patients Monday and Tuesday after attending religious services last weekend with someone later determined to have the virus.
Fitzgerald expressed frustration at the VA’s lack of candor regarding the incident, saying that not notifying patients coming to the facility that a positive case had been identified there was a dangerous precedent in a “community that is largely elderly or has existing respiratory conditions or other illnesses related to exposures such as burn pits and Agent Orange.”
“It’s crazy to think that not only is this VA facility potentially exposing veterans patients, but also the staff on duty. The doctor has been sent home but the staff that were exposed are still there,” Fitzgerald said. “What message does this send the veterans community?”
Dr. James Martin, an emergency room physician who serves as national representative on the American Federation of Government Employees National VA Council, said the union was immediately notified of the case and staff was notified as well.
Martin added that all health facilities, including Veterans Affairs medical centers, have struggled with testing for COVID-19 because test kits are scarce.
“But that should change this week,” he said, as more testing kits become available.
Unions representing VA employees are ramping up pressure on VA management to increase availability of protective equipment, supplies, training and education to address COVID-19, which has infected more than 3,000 Americans, including 30 veterans in the VA health system.
The unions are pressing for more say in developing planning and communications in response to COVID-19.
“The VA’s failure to engage their employees and union representatives is disheartening and prevents all VA stakeholders from safeguarding our country’s veterans and employees from the COVID-19 virus,” David Holway, president of the National Association of Government Employees said in a statement Monday.
Nurses staged a luncheon protest outside the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, Georgia, last week, asking for increased staffing, protective equipment and training.
If our nurses and health care workers are not protected, that means our veteran patients, their families, and our wider community is not protected,” said Irma Westmoreland, a registered nurse and vice-president of National Nurses United.
On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a statement saying it has its first employee with a confirmed case of COVID-19. According to the CDC, the worker has not been involved in the COVID-19 response efforts and has not been inside a CDC facility since March 6.
CDC officials said the employee is doing well and recovering at home. They added that they will “will handle each case with the utmost respect to privacy, while also informing potentially affected staff and taking swift measures to mitigate spread of the virus.”
“CDC is considering and taking all necessary actions to further protect the health and safety of our workforce,” officials said.
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.