Veterans Affairs hospitals preparing for 'boomerang' of COVID-19 this fall, Secretary says

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie attends a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies hearing on Capitol Hill about the Department of Veterans Affairs response to COVID-19 on May 28, 2020.
Photo credit Photo by Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty Images

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie says his agency, tasked with serving as a last line of defense for American healthcare during emergencies, is preparing for another possible surge of the coronavirus this fall. 

"We are preparing in the event this boomerangs on the country in the fall and in the winter,” Wilkie said in a recent interview with Government Executive. "We are preparing for the eventuality of flu and COVID coming together.”

It's not the first time Wilkie has said the department was working to prepare for the fall and winter, anticipating more veteran patients in need of care but also non-veterans, through VA's Fourth Mission. Wilkie and Veterans Health Administration chief Dr. Richard Stone told members of Congress in recent months they were working under the assumption there may be a resurgence of the virus, coupled with the flu, and stocking up on supplies accordingly. 

Earlier in the pandemic, VA staff and patients reported shortages of personal protective equipment at VA, though department leaders largely denied those accounts, before eventually acknowledging some issues with supply chains. 

“What we’ve been able to do is stockpile for what may come, and I think we’re in an excellent place,” Wilkie said in the recent interview. “We have months of supplies on hand.”

Wilkie flat-out denied there had been any lack of supplies for any VA facility, contrary to what frontline VA staff told Connecting Vets for weeks, who described shortages of masks, gowns and gloves, expired supplies, and being told to wear protective equipment until it fell apart. 

“Not one person who was on the front lines, in a COVID ward, or an emergency ward, or any of our hospital wards, ever had a shortage of equipment,” he said. “In fact, not one of our hospitals ever got below two weeks of supply." 

VA's Fourth Mission is to serve as a backup for the American healthcare system in times of crisis, such as natural disasters and pandemics, so the department has been at the center of the federal government response, deploying resources and staff to at least 46 states. 

Capitol Hill lawmakers were critical of VA for not spending more of the nearly $20 billion in emergency coronavirus funding they provided the department when by June only about $2 billion had been allocated. But Wilkie said the money will serve as "our hedge against what could possibly come," saying he was "cognizant this can boomerang back on us during the winter." 

At the time, Stone said he was comfortable with VA's preparations, "but make no mistake, if we hit a really big second peak like was seen in late 1918, we'll be in the need to really grow even further ... Early on in this we bought a very large number of ventilators ... I think I&a