Nurse Irma Westmoreland said the Veterans Affairs hospital where she works has already run out of paper gowns and is warning staffers to ration their use of linens out of concerns the facility may run out of protective equipment for use on a daily basis.
The site — the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, Ga. — has only had five confirmed cases of coronavirus so far.
“When we get a surge of cases, where will we be?” said Westmoreland, a 30-year employee at VA and vice president of National Nurses United, which represents 12,000 nurses at 23 different VA sites across the country. “I’m afraid for my co-workers and I’m afraid for my family.”
Union officials are raising concerns this week about what they see as significant deficiencies in VA readiness to respond to the coronavirus epidemic, which has already killed more than 6,000 Americans.
On Monday, NNU members from the Brooklyn VA facility in New York City are planning a between-shifts protest of conditions there, promising no disruption in care but also more public awareness of the problems staff are facing.
The move comes as VA leaders work to assure patients and the public that they are prepared not only for the demands of veterans during the fast-spreading outbreak, but also for the potential responsibility of taking in non-veteran patients to help with overwhelmed community health centers.
In a statement Friday, VA press secretary Christina Noel said that “all VA facilities are equipped with essential items and supplies, and we are continually monitoring the status of those items to ensure a robust supply chain.”
Nationwide, VA officials have reported nearly 2,000 coronavirus cases among patients in the last month and 68 deaths connected to the illness.
On Friday, the Detroit Free Press reported that a nurse at the John D. Dingell Medical Center in Detroit died as a result of coronavirus complications, the first known casualty among VA staffers. At least 185 employees have tested positive for the illness in recent weeks.
A Reuters report last week detailed concerns of staffers at the Brooklyn and Bronx VA hospitals in New York City — one of the areas of the country worst hit by the pandemic so far — including mask shortages and inadequate staffing.
A nurse from the Brooklyn site (who asked her identity to be withheld to protect her job) said that some medical personnel are being asked to care for two or three times their normal patient workload.
“This is just so unsafe,” she told Military Times. “We’re all barely making it to the end of our shifts.”
Despite that, the hospital took on several non-veteran patients in the last week, as other local hospitals are overwhelmed.
Earlier this week, officials from the National Federation of Federal Employees said that staff at the East Orange VA hospital in New Jersey have similarly complained about the lack of personal protective equipment. That facility already has 54 confirmed coronavirus cases, and has reported two deaths.
“Our members, who are bravely fighting to protect and care for our veterans, cannot continue to put their lives at risk without even the most basic safety precautions,” the group said in a statement.
But VA officials disputed the NFFE claims.
“VA New Jersey Health Care System has a plan in place to ensure the safety of patients, staff and their families,” spokeswoman Christine Betros Farrell said in a statement.
“(The campus) is equipped with the essential items needed to handle COVID-19 cases, and we are continually monitoring the status of those items to ensure a robust supply chain. VANJHCS provides PPE for all employees who are working in patient care or screening areas. (Leadership) is following all CDC guidelines for the use of masks and protective equipment.”
The East Orange site is also expected to take in non-veteran patients in coming days.
Last week, in an interview with Military Times, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said he is in routine contact with regional officials to ensure that specific needs are being met. While he acknowledged some “gaps” in supplies were inevitable, he expressed confidence in the VA system’s ability to react to those problems.
Westmoreland said the Augusta VA hospital had an adequate supply of personal protective equipment at the start of the month, but much of that has been shipped to nearby sites like the Atlanta VA medical campus because of increased needs there.
Personnel she has spoken with at other sites around the country said many administrators allowed their reserves to dwindle or expire, creating shortages today.
“So even at places where supplies may be OK for now, we’re all worried,” she said.
Westmoreland, who has worked at VA facilities for more than 30 years, has done mostly administrative work in the recent past but said she is shifting now to direct-patient care as all staffers shift to the emergency response. Much of her training has been online classes and paperwork, instead of the hands-on experience she would prefer.
Last week, VA officials took to social media to reach out to retired VA clinicians and other federal healthcare providers to consider returning to the workforce to help with the national emergency.
“VA has a comprehensive training plan in place to ensure our clinical teams have an understanding of COVID-19 and how to use PPE to ensure the safety of their patients and themselves,” Noel said. “VA health care workers have performed amazingly well during these challenging times, and will continue to do so.”
But NNU officials called that irresponsible given the VA leadership’s lack of response to existing staff concerns. Corey Lanham, mid-Atlantic collective bargaining director, in a statement said he fears “unnecessary deaths of both veterans and civilian patients who are being treated at the VA” if adjustments aren’t made soon.
Westmoreland said she expects to start seeing a sharp increase in her facility’s coronavirus numbers any day.
“I love VA and I love our mission,” she said. “We’d all be happy to do the work, if we just had enough supplies and training to do it.”
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.