Veterans Affairs officials in New York will open up 50 beds to non-veteran patients in New York City as part of the department’s federal responsibility to backstop community health needs in the event of a national emergency.
The move comes after weeks of discussion about VA’s “fourth mission” in response to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak but also amid news reports that department hospitals in the city are already experiencing shortages in staffing, protective equipment and other critical needs.
New York has become one of the most dangerous hot spots for the virus in the United States, with more than 650 deaths to the illness in just the last few weeks. On Saturday, the military hospital ship USNS Comfort was deployed from Virginia to New York city to help with the medical response there.
At least two physicians at the VA’s Brooklyn site have already tested positive for the illness. VA officials would not answer questions about how many patients they may have exposed to the illness
In an interview with Reuters on Friday, staffers at various New York city VA sites described frayed employees and overwhelmed hospital systems as the coronavirus problem worsens. At least 78 cases of the virus have been confirmed at the two main VA medical centers in the city.
“I don’t know where the staff to cover all these patients is going to come from, and I don’t think they know either,” Corey Lanham, VA Division Director for National Nurses United, told Reuters.
But on Sunday, in response to a request from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, VA agreed to make available 50 beds (35 acute care and 15 intensive care unit) to “non-veteran, non-COVID patients to help assist New York City in its response efforts.”
The first five non-veteran patients of that group were transferred on Sunday morning. In a statement, VA leaders said the move would not negatively impact veteran care.
Last Thursday, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told Military Times that while his department was prepared to respond to outside requests for help, “We don’t release any beds if veterans are needing them … We are a (health) bridge for the larger community, but that’s only after veterans are taken care of.”
According to VA data, the department operates about 500 beds in New York City. On Sunday, Wilkie said in a statement that “VA is proud to assist the City of New York while continuing its primary mission of caring for our nation’s veterans.”
In an effort to prevent spread of the virus, VA has asked veteran patients to call ahead to medical centers before visiting to minimize the chance of exposing others to the illness.
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.
More than 124,000 individuals across the United States have contracted the coronavirus, and more than 2,000 have died from the illness, all within the last month.
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.