Thousands of veteran caregivers eligible for coronavirus vaccine, VA says

Resident Carl Wilson receives the COVID-19 vaccination at the New Jersey Veterans Memorial Home at Menlo Park, Edison, N.J., Jan. 5, 2021. These are the first vaccinations administered at the Home under the Federal Pharmacy Program.
Resident Carl Wilson receives the COVID-19 vaccination at the New Jersey Veterans Memorial Home at Menlo Park, Edison, N.J., Jan. 5, 2021. These are the first vaccinations administered at the Home under the Federal Pharmacy Program. Photo credit New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs photo by Mark C. Olsen

In a major win for veterans and those who care for them, the Department of Veterans Affairs has decided to allow thousands of caregivers to receive the coronavirus vaccine.

VA plans to provide COVID-19 testing and vaccines to veteran caregivers enrolled in its Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, VA Press Secretary Christina Noel said. VA has yet to formally announce the change in policy, but Noel said an update is coming soon.

The decision was made by Veterans Health Administration Executive in Charge Dr. Richard Stone, who notified VA staff by memo, saying VA designated primary and secondary caregivers will likely receive the vaccine with the same priority as the veterans they care for.

The Independence Fund, a nonprofit that advocates for ill, injured and wounded veterans, their families and caregivers, said in a news release this week that VA first had to receive permission from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency before it could expand vaccine eligibility to veterans' caregivers.

The Independence Fund and 11 other veteran service organizations wrote to the CDC, FEMA and HHS in December asking that caregivers be added to the list of those eligible to receive the vaccine and at an appropriate phase to help protect the veterans they care for under its Fourth Mission.

“The laws and regulations on this issue are very complex,” Bob Carey, executive vice president for advocacy and strategy at The Independence Fund, said in a statement. “It’s not easy to navigate the various authorities and processes available to make this happen. But the VHA team leading this vaccine effort -- Dr. Richard Stone, Dr. Kameron Matthews, and Dr. Jane Kim – were dogged in finding a solution. They’ve done yeoman’s work to make this happen.”

It's so far unclear which tiers of caregivers will receive the vaccine initially, according to the Independence Fund, or if caregivers not designated under the program will be eligible.

The news of vaccine eligibility expansion comes as VA grapples with some of its highest levels of patients and staff actively sick from the coronavirus and what could be the deadliest month so far of the pandemic for VA.

As of Jan. 15, VA recorded nearly 188,000 total cases of COVID-19 among patients and staff since the pandemic began along with more than 7,700 patient deaths and 111 staff deaths attributed to the virus. VA also recorded nearly 18,000 cases of patients actively sick with the virus on Friday.

As of Jan. 5-11, VA had administered vaccines to more than 66,000 veterans and 188,000 workers. As of Jan. 15, VA had received nearly a million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and administered nearly 285,000 doses, including more than 31,000 second doses of the two-dose series, according to the most recently available CDC data.

VA staff previously told Connecting Vets the department is able to handle more doses of the vaccine than it is currently receiving from Operation Warp Speed, but internal VA communications obtained by Connecting Vets this week said federal officials denied VA additional doses. Governors and state officials nationwide began sharing that they also had been denied increased shipments of vaccines from the national stockpile in recent weeks because of a lack of supply.

"I am demanding answers from the Trump Administration. I am shocked and appalled that they have set an expectation on which they could not deliver, with such grave consequences," Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement Friday.

Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett. Sign up for the Connecting Vets weekly newsletter to get more stories like this delivered to your inbox.