As the number of coronavirus cases among Veterans Affairs patients continues to climb, lawmakers are questioning whether department officials have clear plans to deal with both the current outbreak and distribution of a vaccine if it becomes available.
As of Monday evening, the department reported 13,759 active cases of the virus among its patients, an increase of 179 percent in the last month alone.
VA has set a new record high for active virus cases each of the last 23 days, and on Tuesday morning passed 100,000 total confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic. At least 4,685 patients and 70 department staffers have died in the last eight from health complications related to the virus.
On Monday, several Democrats on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee — led by ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont. — warned in a letter to VA leaders that the department “needs to take action now to ensure the health and safety of veterans, staff and their families.” That includes outlining a public plan now for vaccine distribution.
“For COVID-19 vaccine distribution to succeed there must be a well-organized plan to meet the needs of all veterans and their providers,” the group wrote. “VA is developing a draft plan on COVID-19 vaccine allocation and distribution, but (officials have said) it is not ready for release to Congress or the public yet.
“If the states and other federal agencies have already publicly released their plans, why is VA lagging behind?”
In response, VA press secretary Christina Noel said the department is “working diligently, both internally and externally with its CDC partners, to develop a comprehensive plan to assure availability of COVID-19 vaccine across the VA system as soon as the product becomes available.”
Currently, the Food and Drug Administration has not approved any vaccines to counter the coronavirus pandemic, which has sickened more than 12 million Americans and killed more than 255,000.
However, at least three experimental vaccines have shown promise in recent weeks, and White House officials have said they are optimistic that millions of doses could be made available to some Americans by the end of December.
Federal officials have said they would give priority to front-line health workers and other individuals facing unique danger from the virus, but have not specifically mentioned whether veterans and VA patients would fall in that category.
Noel said that immunizations for veterans and staff “will be based on CDC guidelines, which include … risk of acquiring infection, risk of severe illness and death, risk of transmitting disease and risk of harm to society.”
Earlier this month, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement that staff had already begun planning exercises for vaccine distribution. That includes an initial limited-supply phase followed by a general implementation phase, “when large supplies of the vaccine will be available to veterans who want to receive one.”
Lawmakers said VA patients and their families need more details than that. They also said the department should make sure that all VA patients and staff can receive the vaccine for free.
“VA needs to take steps to swiftly develop and release its own COVID-19 vaccine strategy, ensure equitable allocation and meet the needs of staff and veterans, combat vaccine misinformation, and strengthen cross-government and community partnerships,” their letter stated.
As of Tuesday, nine VA medical centers were tracking 200 or more active cases of coronavirus among patients, with sites in Minneapolis (415) and Cleveland (401) reporting the most cases. Another 43 sites had at least 100 active cases.
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.