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VA Head Acknowledges Challenges For Health Care Workers Battling Coronavirus

The Department of Veterans Affairs is the country's largest health care network with 300 hospitals, clinics and nursing homes nationwide. More than 9 million American veterans get care from the VA, and today VA doctors and nurses serve on the frontlines of the pandemic crisis.

In March, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told NPR's All Things Considered that his department was well-prepared for the outbreak of COVID-19, and had good supplies of masks and testing kits. The reality is different today, he said.

"Since then, as the national emergency kicked in since I did that interview, the normal supply chains have dried up," said Wilkie.

Wilkie insists the VA did sufficient planning, with "war games" of the outbreak earlier this year. And he said the VA had replenished its national emergency cache of health supplies before the virus hit. That planning has not measured up to the crisis. No VA hospital has run out, but that's because the VA has been forced to carefully ration equipment.

"For those who are on the front lines in the emergency rooms, in the COVID wards, who are in the nursing homes, they have the normal supply of equipment. It's those who do not have that direct contact with patients that we've asked to follow CDC guidelines," he said.

Wilkie admits the Centers for Disease Control guidelines are based more on adapting to the crisis than on ideal medical practices.

"We are ensuring that those on the front lines have what they need," he said. "Does everyone in a hospital have all of the changes in gear that we would have in a normal situation? No."

VA health care workers across the country have been protesting the lack of protective gear. Last week they claimed victory when the VA changed its rules to allow a greater number of staff to use one mask per day instead of one per week. That was also the first time the VA publicly acknowledged it was rationing gear.

Wilkie said the VA is adjusting to the crisis as fast possible with some 400,000 employees.

"We try to move as quickly as possible," he said. "We know people are making sacrifices and they are worthy of praise from the entire country."

According to the VA's most recent tally, 5,505 veteran patients have tested positive — and 339 of them have died. More than 1,500 VA staff members are infected and at least 14 have died. It's hard to judge whether the veterans' mortality rate is high because their average age and health conditions make them one of the most vulnerable populations in the country.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.