As VA Sec denies supply shortages, nurses protest over lack of protective equipment

Wilkie
Photo credit AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie denies that VA hospitals are facing a shortage of personal protective equipment, despite internal memos and medical staff saying otherwise for weeks.

Now, a group of VA nurses is planning a protest at their hospital to demand protection when treating patients positive for the coronavirus. 

Registered nurses at the Atlanta VA Medical Center planned to hold a protest during their shift change Friday to describe the current conditions they're working under and the need for more N95 respirators and other protective gear required to safely treat COVID-19 patients, according to the National Nurses United, the largest nurses' union in the country. 

“I and my fellow nurses come to work every day grateful and proud to help care for our nation’s heroes, our veterans,” Dana Horton, RN, National Nurses United Atlanta chief nurse representative, said in a statement. “As a nurse during this pandemic, my job is to protect and heal veterans but without proper protective equipment, I cannot safely do my job that has been my calling for 26 years. I know working without the proper protections, I am endangering myself, my co-workers, the veterans I care for and our community by possibly exposing others to COVID-19.”

The nurses' demonstration follows Wilkie's recent denial that VA hospitals are short on protective gear such as masks, respirators, gowns and other equipment. 

In a recent interview with Military.com, Wilkie said VA had "not put anyone in harm's way" and said that "not one of our hospitals has ever run out of supplies ... I can tell you that in the emergency rooms and on the COVID wards, we are providing all those with (personal protective equipment." 

Wilkie echoed what VA spokespeople have been saying for week in response to reports of shortages from staff -- there are none, and if there were, VA hospitals with lower demand can send their extra supplies where they're most needed. 

But VA's own internal memos obtained by Connecting Vets describe a "serious" shortage of PPE and said the protective equipment was being rationed as of last week. Even before that, VA medical staff told Connecting Vets they were rationing supplies, provided expired supplies or weren't provided the recommended PPE according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. 

Those internal emails show that medical staff working with COVID-19 patients would be provided one mask per day, and nursing home staff would be provided one per week, stored in brown paper bags. 

VA called its medical staff's accounts "false allegations" and denied any rationing. Staff said they are scared of catching the virus or spreading it to their families. 

Lawmakers in Congress also are hearing reports of shortages but said their "dozens" of requests for clarity from VA have gone unanswered, adding that VA officials have blamed the White House for holding up documents. 

"We are concerned that while VA has consistently reported to the committees since March 19 that it has enough PPE supply on hand to last at least two weeks, we are hearing from a growing number of our constituents employed by VA medical facilities that drastic actions have been taken -- including issuing only one facemask or N95 respirator per week to staff caring for vulnerable veterans," the Congress members wrote in a letter this week. "If VA does not provide ... timely information, we cannot ... work with VA to minimize the harm to our veterans caused by this pandemic." 

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: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.
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