As medical experts begin advising the United States to prepare for a possible second wave of the coronavirus, the Department of Veterans Affairs says it is continuing to add room for patients, stabilize supply chains and add more staff.
The Pentagon and the Defense Health Agency already are bracing for a possible "second spike" of COVID-19, leaders told Connecting Vets, stocking supplies and taking staff headcounts to ensure the military health system is prepared not only for a resurgence of the virus, but also for a backlog of patient appointments delayed by stay-at-home orders and hospitals limiting services to lessen risk of virus transmission.
The VA appears to be preparing for the same.
"VA was prepared for the COVID-19 outbreak and will be prepared for any future outbreaks," VA Press Secretary Christina Noel told Connecting Vets. "We prepare for such contingencies year-round and are continually evaluating our existing footprints, policies and supply levels to maintain readiness."
Department officials provided an update on VA's capacity Wednesday, after refusing to provide such information over past months.
As of late April, VA said it had room for 12,215 critical and non-critical patients, and increase from 9,840 in March.
That increase is because VA deferred elective surgeries in anticipation of greater need for hospital beds during the pandemic. That expansion allowed VA to care for non-veteran patients as part of its fourth mission to serve as a last line of defense for the American healthcare system in times of crisis.
That expansion has also allowed VA to keep its overall capacity at 35-40 percent for both acute and intensive care units, the department said, "well below the crisis capacity levels that some feared as the virus spread."
VA said its stock of medical supplies "remains robust." But VA also said it was "well-stocked" or had "adequate" supplies of personal protective equipment before, at least publicly, while it's internal communications showed "austerity" measures including severe rationing of supplies such as masks and gowns. VA medical staff told Connecting Vets they lacked masks and other PPE, were given expired supplies, told to wash disposable masks, or were limited to one mask per week and told to wear them until they fell apart. Some veteran patients at VA said they bought nurses masks themselves. VA officials denied those accounts and called them "false allegations."
VA staff and union leaders accused the department of endangering veteran patients and employees. Those allegations prompted a Department of Labor investigation.
Despite those issues, and concerns over the department's use of the controversial drug hydroxychloroquine to treat veterans with the virus, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said he believed his agency was "doing a pretty good job" in April and praised its efforts again Wednesday.
“VA’s team has managed its resources wisely during this crisis,” Wilkie said in a statement. “By deferring elective surgeries, the department opened ample space for COVID-19 patients and has been able to serve its ‘Fourth Mission’ of caring for all Americans during this crisis.”
VA has "millions of N95 masks on hand," the department said, along with "plenty supplies (sic) of hand sanitizer, gloves, gowns and eye protection."
The department also has 11,943 ICU ventilators on hand, plus 826 transport ventilators and 1,218 anesthesia machines.
As of Wednesday, VA reported more than 11,600 COVID-19 cases, including veterans, employees, service members and civilians.
Of those, 1,993 veterans are actively sick with the virus and more than 6,800 were considered "convalescent" meaning they are in recovery or it has been more than 14 days since they tested positive, according to the department. Most (63 percent) of the veterans who are convalescing are "recuperating at home," VA said.
VA is tracking at least 953 patient deaths, including 665 in VA inpatient care.
Among staff, VA data shows more than 1,300 have tested positive, though more than 1,000 of those are considered convalescent. At least 30 have died.
VA has administered more than 136,000 tests nationwide as of Wednesday.
The department is working at "a record pace" to hire more staff. In April, VA added 9.338 medical staff, including more than 2,000 registered nurses expected to join VA this month.