Veterans exposed to toxins during their military service, such as massive burning trash pits, could be at higher risk for the coronavirus. Now, senators are calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs to protect them.
Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Michael Rounds, R-S.D., sent a letter this week to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie asking him to "take additional measures to ensure that our at-risk veterans, including those exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances, receive the care they need" during the pandemic.
Veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxins during military service have higher rates of asthma, emphysema and "rare lung disorders," the lawmakers wrote, making them "at particular risk for experiencing serious or potentially life-threatening symptoms should they contract the virus."
Experts told Connecting Vets those veterans also could have compromised immune systems, making them more susceptible to the virus in general, and making it harder for them to recover from it.
The VA estimates that more than 3.5 million veterans have been exposed to burn pits and so far more than 200,000 vets and troops have signed up for the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry.
"It is critical that VA prioritizes efforts to ensure that these brave men and women are able to safely receive care," the senators wrote.
VA previously told Congress that as many as 20 percent of its patients could require additional care during the pandemic, and VA's COVID-19 response plan includes that veterans with service-connected respiratory issues, such as burn pit exposure, are among the at-risk population of VA patients.
But, not all VA facilities are telehealth-ready, the senators said, putting veterans who still need care at risk of being infected if they show up at a VA hospital or clinic.
After medical staff across the country and internal VA memos showed personal protective equipment shortages or rationing at department hospitals, the senators said they also were concerned wit staff safety.
"It is important that staff have the necessary medical equipment and supplies, including masks, gloves and sanitation supplies, to safely interact with and provide services to veterans visiting their facilities," they wrote.
The senators asked for a plan from VA to expand telehealth capabilities to department Readjustment Counseling Services facilities to help veterans get greater access to care during the pandemic, an outline of what VA is doing to provide PPE to its facilities and asked that VA "communicate with veterans the resources that are available to them during the pandemic."