First veteran tests positive for coronavirus, VA leaders say they have space to care for more

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Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie confirmed to Congress Wednesday the first case of a veteran testing positive for coronavirus. 

A veteran in California is being treated for COVID-19 at the Palo, Alto, Calif. VA hospital, Wilkie said during a budget hearing before a House Appropriations Committee subpanel, and VA has space nationwide to care for more.

Veterans Health Administration head Dr. Richard Stone said that there is a place prepared for veterans with COVID-19 at every VA system in the U.S., a total of about 1,000 "negative airflow" rooms.

"The entire nation is covered with negative airflow beds," Stone said. Negative airflow rooms are isolation strategies using specialized ventilation and air pressure in hospitals to prevent contamination and the spread of infection.

"The one veteran we know of who has this virus, we prepared a swathe of our Palo Alto campus to receive veterans who have this virus. We are set up for that," Wilkie said. "That veteran is being taken care of there." 

Stone also said VA has begun pre-screening outside its emergency rooms, the same method it uses for significant flu outbreaks. 

A special concern for VA, though, is its 135 nursing homes nationwide that care for 8,000 veterans, Stone said. VA is screening everyone coming into those facilities for symptoms. Some have blocked visitors entirely.

"We train for this. We train for epidemics," Wilkie said, adding that VA is in "constant contact with the CDC and National Institutes of Health as well as the presidential task force." 

Wilkie also has a seat on that task force, he said. 

VA has about 1,000 testing kits, Stone said, adding that it's not enough and the department plans to order more as well as design its own. 

Last week, Wilkie declined an offer for additional resources from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, saying he believed VA was prepared for a potential outbreak. 

VA tells Congress it is prepared for possible coronavirus outbreak in US

“Not at this point,” Wilkie told lawmakers of his need for more resources. “We are a foundational response when it comes to emergencies like this. We train for them year-round … We are testing our processes as we speak … We are checking supply lines.”

Wilkie also said “we are set” on staffing for emergency management. 

But if conditions take a turn for the worse, Stone said things will change.

“If this develops into a pandemic, in which parts of the American health system break down, we’re going to have a different conversation,” Stone said, adding that as of now, “we see ourselves as well prepared.” 

A VA spokesperson told Connecting Vets Thursday that while the Department of Health and Human Services is leading the federal government COVID-19 response efforts, "VA is monitoring the situation through its Emergency Management Coordination Cell and collaborating with public health officials from HHS and the Centers for Disease Control to ensure Veterans benefit from the latest prevention, testing and treatment protocols and develop emergency management plans for medical centers." 

VA also has produced a guide for veterans on coronavirus, which includes that veterans who believe they are infected should call their local VA before they show up to the hospital.


Reach Abbie Bennett: or @AbbieRBennett.
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