'We stand ready': Wilkie says VA is working to get more coronavirus tests, open more beds

Photo credit Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie said Wednesday that his agency -- tasked with caring for veterans but also backing up the civilian health sector in national emergencies -- "stands ready" to help if called upon to do so by the president.

VA is a last line of defense in the US against national medical emergencies like pandemics

Wilkie said in an ABC interview Wednesday morning that VA is working to secure more tests and open more beds for patients in the event of a surge. He said VA has enough protective gear for its staff. 

"Our supplies are stable," he said. "We are about ready to bring in hundreds of thousands of masks, we have thousands of ventilators that are ready to go. We have procedures in place … as the foundational response should America as a whole need us to augment civilian and government healthcare systems.”

During a White House press briefing Wednesday afternoon, Wilkie also announced plans for VA to expand its capacity in the event it needs to fulfill its fourth mission -- to serve as a last line of defense for the United States during health emergencies. Wilkie said VA is ready to be America's backup. 

"You've heard a lot about the fourth mission VA has," Wilkie said, "to support the federal government in times of natural disasters and pandemics ... We are the buttress force ... We are gaming out emergency preparedness scenarios and we stand ready when the president needs us to expand our mission."

Wilkie said VA has opened emergency management centers, expanded visitation limitations in its hospitals, long-term care centers and other facilities and is limiting dental and other elective surgeries. 

VA has "cut back by one-third the number of routine appointments," said Wilkie.  

All those actions are part of the president's directives to "do everything imaginable" to protect the more than 9 million veterans in VA care, Wilkie said, adding that he believes VA had "set the pace for the entire country." 

Wilkie said VA is working to add more available beds for a potential surge in COVID-19 patients, including negative airflow beds to prevent spread of infection. Stopping elective surgeries has freed up some beds, he said. 

"We are now concentrating on building up our supply of rooms," he said. 

VA Press Secretary Christina Mandreucci told Connecting Vets VA has more than 3,000 tests on hand -- 1,200 from the Centers for Disease Control the department plans to use first, and another 2,000 VA developed. Wilkie said Wednesday that VA expected to receive more tests "from the private sector" this week.

So far, Mandreucci said VA has administered over 322 COVID-19 tests nationwide. As of March 18, VA was tracking 44 veterans who tested positive for the virus and one veteran died because of it. 

When asked if all of the veterans who need tests have gotten them, Wilkie said: "We believe we've caught most of them.

"We have been in a better place than most healthcare systems in the country. I cannot predict when the next surge will be, if it will be," he said. 

When asked about NBA teams receiving testing while VA has conducted only a few hundred tests so far systemwide, Wilkie said he did not believe it was harder for veterans to get tested than star athletes. 

"No, I don't think so," he said. "We just haven't seen the surge that the rest of the country has." 

But VA employees, veterans and family members across the VA healthcare system told Connecting Vets hospitals and clinics either had no tests, or were not administering them to veterans who feared they may have the virus. 

VA's system of 141 medical centers and more than 1,000 clinics treat about 9 million veterans -- more than half of which are older than 65, putting them at higher risk for infection, according to the CDC. 

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Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.
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