Department of Labor to investigate VA over staff exposure to coronavirus

Photo credit Photo by 1st Sgt. Rodolfo Armando Barrios Quinones/VA Caribbean Healthcare System

After a union representing millions of Department of Veterans Affairs employees accused the VA of "endangering" veterans and medical staff during the coronavirus pandemic, the Department of Labor said it will investigate. 

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sent a letter to the American Federation of Government Employees' National Veterans Affairs Council President Alma Lee saying that after the union filed a complaint on behalf of 260,000 VA employees, an investigation is planned. 

OSHA "will be initiating an investigation concerning worker exposure to patients with COVID-19," the letter read. 

The letter was written by Loren Sweatt, principal deputy assistant secretary for OSHA, who added that "I am contacting the VA's designated safety and health official" about the allegations. 

The union's complaint alleged VA "failed to keep workers free from known hazards" and said the agency directed staff who had come in contact with or been in close proximity to people with virus symptoms, to report to work "without regard to the 14-day self-quarantine guidelines" issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Union accuses VA of 'endangering' veterans, medical staff during coronavirus pandemic

The union accused VA of further violating OSHA standards by failing to provide workers with N95 respirators "and other necessary personal protective equipment (PPE)" as well as "failing to isolate suspected and confirmed COVID-19 patients and refusing to provide COVID-19 testing to employees who have been exposed to those known or suspected of having the virus." 

For weeks, VA medical employees and veteran patients have told Connecting Vets about personal protective equipment shortages and rationing at hospitals across the country. They described diminishing stock of masks, respirators, gowns and other supplies, expired supplies or an outright lack in some areas. 

VA officials, including Secretary Robert Wilkie, have denied any rationing or shortages, calling them "false allegations." 

But internal VA memos and communications between staff provided to Connecting Vets show otherwise, noting "serious" shortages at the department and announcing rationing. 

This week, Veterans Health Administration head Dr. Richard Stone told employees in an email obtained by Connecting Vets that the rationing policy was changing, and staff who previously were provided only one mask per week would get one per day.

VA still is not publicly releasing the number of its staff infected with the virus or the number who have died. Those numbers must be requested each day. 

As of April 16, 1,633 VA staff tested positive for the virus and at least 14 had died. 


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Reach Abbie Bennett: or @AbbieRBennett.
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