Veterans Affairs officials acknowledged on Wednesday that they still lack enough testing supplies to provide on-demand coronavirus screening for all medical employees, despite past promises those services would be made available.
“It is still our intent to get there,” said Dr. Ricard Stone, Executive in Charge of the Veterans Health Administration, in testimony before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “We have the capacity to process 60,000 tests a week. The problem has been the availability of cartridges and swabs.”
The admission from Stone came amid questioning from committee ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont., concerning frustration he has heard from employees wanting to know whether their work caring for veterans has endangered their own health.
More than 1,500 VA employees have tested positive for coronavirus in the last three months, and 32 staffers have died.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has noted that infection rate is lower than most other major medical systems in America, “less than one half of one percent.” Stone said that about 12 percent of the department workforce has been tested so far.
Union officials have expressed concerns in recent months over a lack of personal protective equipment and testing supplies, saying that leaders have ignored problematic shortages and endangered employees.
But Wilkie countered that charge, saying a quick response by VA staff has helped keep the workforce and patients as safe as possible amid a global pandemic.
“Thousands of VA employees have put themselves in harm’s way,” he said. “They deserve the thanks of the American people.”
Stone said officials are working on the testing supply shortages now, and said the department’s intent remains to have tests available for the entire workforce.
Across the VA health system, more than 195,000 patients have been tested for the fast-spreading coronavirus, with about 7.5 percent of those showing evidence of infection. In the last three months, 1,560 patients in VA care have died from complications related to the illness.
Wilkie said he is confident that the trendline in cases for the department is positive, despite an increase in active cases over the past weekend. He said many of those cases are individuals receiving at-home care but registered in the VA health system.
Stone said the department is planning for “having about 600 patients as inpatients for COVID-19 all the way through the fall.” VA has the capacity to safely handle that figure, but is monitoring whether another surge of cases may come later this year.
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.