Though Department of Veterans Affairs officials have for weeks denied staff reports of protective equipment shortages or rationing, its internal messages to employees tell a different story.
Internal messages said rationing began recently and staff were limited to one mask per day or per week. Now, most staff caring for COVID-19 veterans, veterans in nursing homes and in spinal cord injury centers and inpatient medical units will get one mask per day.
In an email to staff obtained by Connecting Vets dated April 15, Veterans Health Administration Executive in Charge Dr. Richard Stone told VA medical employees that "there have been a lot of rumors about PPE, including our ability to have a sufficient supply of what is needed for our employees."
Before the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, Stone said VA "always had a contingency supply" of personal protective equipment.
"However, when this crisis started to face every healthcare organization in the nation, it became more difficult to project our incoming supply chain," Stone wrote in the email. "For this reason, and out of an abundance of caution, we implemented austerity measures to ensure that every person working with COVID-19 patients had the equipment they needed."
Previously, employees not working directly with patients infected with the virus received one mask each week, which Stone said met Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Stone said as of April 15, VA "once again" had "full visibility of our supply chain, which enables us to see what we currently have as well as our contingency resources."
Stone did not explain what prevented VA from previously having a full account of its PPE supplies. VA did not respond or declined to respond to repeated requests for comment about the number of PPE supplies it had on hand, such as masks, face shields and respirators.
Now, Stone said "all employees in a community living center, spinal cord injury unit or inpatient mental health unit will receive one mask a day to support their duties. We will continue providing N95 masks to those directly in contact with COVID-19-positive patients."
This is a significant change from previous policy providing just one mask per week to those staff members.
Multiple VA medical staff caring for COVID-19 patients told Connecting Vets recently that they were never provided an N95 respirator, and instead were provided surgical masks.
"Let me very clear (sic): your safety is the most important thing I am responsible for – every employee needs to be safe. That is my commitment to you, and your facility leaders take this extremely seriously as well," Stone wrote in the email. "Your safety is the most important thing to us – we need to protect you. I give you my word that we are doing everything to help you continue to take care of our veterans."
In response to the email and change in mask policy, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), a union representing thousands of VA employees, said the change was "encouraging" but more was needed to protect employees and the veterans they care for.
"VA employees across the nation are facing the deadly consequences of the VA’s lack of action, testing, and personal protective equipment to date," AFGE National President Everett Kelley said in a statement Friday. "While we are encouraged by the policy change that says VA employees in community living centers, spinal cord injury centers and inpatient medical health units will start receiving additional PPE to support their duties, the VA needs to ‘mean what they say.’
"Let’s not forget that the VA has been claiming throughout this pandemic that our members on the front lines have the PPE they need," Kelley added. "Beginning to change course, admit the issues, and address the problem with a policy change is a good start from the agency, but our members on the ground need to actually get the PPE in their hands. Too many VA employees are still fighting on the front lines of this pandemic without the proper equipment and safety protocols in place."
In previous internal memos, VA officials said the department was "experiencing serious PPE shortage" and supplies were being rationed.
But during a call with Congressional staff April 3, Stone said VA was "well-stocked with PPE."
For weeks, VA medical staff and veteran patients across the country described rationing, or a lack, of protective equipment and supplies.
Nurses said they were provided one mask per day or week, were told to wear them "until the snaps broke off," were provided masks that expired five years ago or were not provided recommended equipment at all, providing COnnecting Vets emails, photos and videos.
VA officials said staff accounts were "false allegations."
"Not one of our hospitals has ever run out of supplies," VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said this week, denying allegations of shortages or rationing.
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.