Veterans Affairs leaders on Friday made public their emergency response plan to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, warning that the outbreak “could last 18 months or longer” and that nearly one-third of its workforce may be sidelined by the illness.

The document comes as the number of infected patients within the VA system continues to climb steadily, similar to national trends.

So far VA medical centers have confirmed 571 positive cases of coronavirus among patients, nearly all of them diagnosed in the last two weeks. Nine veterans have died from the illness.

During congressional deliberations on Friday morning, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., said that at least 185 VA employees have also tested positive for the virus.

New Orleans remains the biggest problem spot for VA health planners, with 127 known cases in that health system alone. On Thursday, in an interview with Military Times, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said there is no known reason for the concentration of cases there, but officials are monitoring the situation closely.

The department’s 262-page response plan, completed earlier this week, includes plans to begin implementing two separate zones for all VA inpatient medical units. The first will be reserved only for staff and patients dealing with coronavirus cases, the second for all other care.

“These overall changes are aimed at minimizing the risk of infection as VA’s medical professionals make decisions based on what’s appropriate for the given environment and situation,” the department said in a statement.

In addition, VA has shifted some outpatient care to telehealth services (which Wilkie said will be dramatically expanding in coming weeks). Throughout the veterans health system, most elective and non-emergent procedures have been postponed, a move that is expected to free up thousands of hospital beds nationwide.

VA planners said local facility officials need to not only plan for short-term spread of the virus but long-term staffing issues, noting that “potentially 30 percent of the workforce could be non-available due to illness or caring for sick family members.”

“Public health measures, such as temporarily closing schools, and quarantining household contacts of infected individuals are likely to increase rates of absenteeism due to employees with school-aged children,” the plan states. “Similar to influenza, the event could last 18 months or longer and could include multiple waves of illness.”

On Thursday, the VA Inspector General released its assessment of VA official’s coronavirus response so far, saying that screening process at the majority of medical centers is adequate but nearly one-fourth of locations “had opportunities for improvement.”

The report noted that almost all medical facilities in the Veterans Health Administration were collecting coronavirus specimens “but none had the capability to process them on site,” creating potential delays in tracking VA cases.

Nearly 9,000 patients have been tested so far for the illness, according to department statistics.

On Friday, House lawmakers approved nearly $20 billion in emergency funding for VA as part of a $2 trillion emergency spending plan. Much of that money is earmarked for veterans medical care.

The full response plan is available on the VA web site.

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.

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