Veterans Affairs leaders are promising additional protective masks for health care staffers in the wake of accusations from employee groups that the department has covered over equipment shortages during the coronavirus outbreak.
In a message to staff this week, Richard Stone — the executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration — said that all employees in a community living center, spinal cord injury unit or inpatient mental health unit will receive one mask a day to help limit exposure to the illness.
The email also publicly acknowledged for the first time that some staffers had been asked to ration supplies, even as top department leaders have publicly said there were not any system supply shortages.
“Out of an abundance of caution, we implemented austerity measures to ensure that every person working with COVID-19 patients had the equipment they needed,” Stone’s email said. “Those employees not working directly with COVID-19 patients received a mask each week, per the CDC guidelines.”
Stone said that officials now have “have full visibility of our supply chain,” enabling them to better plan for future needs and broaden distribution of the masks.
“We are working hard to ensure that each and every one of you has what you need to stay safe,” he wrote.
The head of American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents about 260,000 VA employees, called the policy change encouraging in a statement — but added that VA leadership’s continued insistence on downplaying problems is troubling.
“Employees across the nation are facing the deadly consequences of the VA’s lack of action, testing, and personal protective equipment to date,” national president Everett Kelley said.
“Let’s not forget that the VA has been claiming throughout this pandemic that our members on the front lines have the personal protective equipment they need. Beginning to change course, admit the issues, and address the problem with a policy change is a good start from the agency, but our members on the ground need to actually get the PPE in their hands.”
On Friday, members of the National Nurses United union protested between shifts outside the Atlanta VA Medical Center in Georgia, saying they have not received adequate protective gear to safety treat patients infected with the coronavirus. A similar protest by the group was held in New York earlier this month.
In an interview with Military.com on Thursday, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie insisted that officials have not “put anyone in harm’s way" by failing to supply needed equipment and that “not one of our hospitals has ever run out of supplies.” But in a later interview with the Wall Street Journal, the secretary acknowledged that “we don’t have the supplies that we would have in an optimal situation, we have the supplies that we need as the (Center for Disease Control) prescribes.”
About 1,600 VA employees have confirmed cases of the coronavirus, and 14 have died from the illness.
More than 5,100 patients have contracted the illness and more than 300 have died from coronavirus-related complications.
The death rate among VA patients who have contracted the virus is about 6 percent, well above the rate for all of the United States. The latest national data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows about a 4 percent death rate among all Americans who test positive for the illness.
However, the VA population being tested and treated for coronavirus is significantly older than the American population as a whole. Health experts have said that elderly and infirm individuals are particularly susceptible to fatal respiratory issues connected to the virus.
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.