Veterans Affairs' staffing shortage raises concerns amid coronavirus outbreak

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, discusses why he would think twice about getting on a plane in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Posted: Mar 13, 2020 8:29 AM
Updated: Mar 14, 2020 9:00 AM


A chronic staffing shortage across the Department of Veterans Affairs is fueling new concerns that lives could be put at risk as the country's largest integrated health care system confronts the growing coronavirus pandemic.

Data released in August revealed 49,000 vacant positions across the department, which employs more than 390,000 people. While the agency's budget has since increased, tens of thousands of jobs remain unfilled.

'It could end up killing people,' one VA official who works for a regional system said, referring to the likelihood that medical personnel at its 1,243 health care facilities across the country will be overwhelmed by a significant rise in patients.

Earlier this month, the VA confirmed the first case in its system. That veteran is currently being treated for coronavirus at a VA facility in Palo Alto, California.

Fifteen other cases, either confirmed or presumed to be positive, have since surfaced at VA facilities in Nevada, Louisiana, Washington state, Georgia, South Dakota and Colorado.

As of Friday, the VA says it has administered 140 tests nationwide, up from 70 just two days prior. That means roughly 9% of those tests have registered indications of coronavirus, a staggering result considering the VA provides care for millions of veterans.

The VA has 3,000 test kits available,1,000 of which were provided by the CDC and will be used first. An additional 2,000 VA-developed tests will only be used if necessary, VA spokesperson Christina Mandreucci told CNN.

In an interview with CNN this week, President Donald Trump's former VA secretary, David Shulkin, agreed that staffing shortages could result in avoidable patient deaths and said it could also limit the VA's ability to proactively test patients.

'When there's time to look back upon the situation and we dissect the response, I think the big deficiency is going to be the fact that we were not prepared for testing,' said Shulkin, noting that it was clear back in December that coronavirus was becoming a significant infectious outbreak.

Older veterans at risk

Most concerning are staffing shortages at facilities that serve a high number of older veterans, a patient population that is among the most vulnerable to infection.

'What demographic uses VA the most and who is most at risk? Elderly people,' a former VA official told CNN. 'Where are those people located? The same places where the system is already overwhelmed.'

On March 10, more than 134 nursing homes operated by the VA adopted a 'no visitors' policy in an effort to lower the risk of exposure to the coronavirus among older veterans.

While Mandreucci told CNN that 'no staffing issues are impacting its response to COVID-19,' the department has been grappling with a well-known staffing problem for some time. Lawmakers and VA officials have sought to address the situation for several years with little to show for it. Mandreucci maintains the VA's workforce continues to grow, citing a turnover rate that 'compares favorably to other cabinet level agencies.'

Yet, the Trump administration's struggle to address the coronavirus outbreak has renewed concerns over VA's failure to fill key positions at medical facilities across the country. Congressional aides familiar with the staffing shortages who spoke to CNN this week acknowledged it's a serious problem that could get exacerbated as the virus spreads.

Open to civilians?

Should the coronavirus continue to worsen, the VA could be called on to open its doors to civilians in case of a national health emergency -- a directive that has been triggered during previous crises. In 2016, the department authorized VA grief counselors and emergency responders to provide assistance to victims following the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida.

Shulkin told CNN that were he still running the VA, he would have already issued the directive in response to the coronavirus. 'I believe the necessary authorities are already in place. I do believe that one should coordinate all their decisions with both Congress and the executive branch,' he said.

As of now, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has not taken that step, but the option remains on the table amid warnings that the outbreak is expected to spread. The VA has deployed some resources to help other federal agencies conduct screening of repatriated Americans.

One VA official working at a facility outside Washington, DC, told CNN that they believe VA resources would only be offered to the civilian population in a worst case scenario and that they were not aware of any discussions at the local level about that happening.

Some VA medical facilities are uniquely equipped to treat patients with respiratory symptoms that have been associated with coronavirus, offering so-called negative pressure isolation rooms that contain air flow to help prevent cross-contamination.

The VA has 1,000 of those rooms throughout its system, according to Shulkin, more than any other health care system in the country. But they're only effective if properly staffed, he said.

Emergency preparations

The VA has taken some steps to address the coronavirus outbreak in recent weeks and remains more flexible than most health care systems in its ability to deploy staff to areas in need of additional assistance, maintaining a longstanding plan to deploy clinical and non-clinical staff in emergency situations

'VA's emergency preparedness exercises began weeks before COVID-19 was confirmed in the US. These exercises are an essential part of VA's ability to meet the specialized healthcare needs of veterans across this widespread challenge,' Mandreucci said when asked if facilities were properly equipped.

Still, veterans must meet very specific criteria in order to be prioritized for testing, placing similar restrictions on those who have access to tests similar to civilian patients.

In order to meet the current standard for testing, individuals must have demonstrated symptoms and had exposure to someone who has tested positive or traveled to one of the regions the administration has designated as 'high risk,' Mandreucci confirmed, adding that the department is implementing the same guidance issued by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Additionally, some veterans who are tested have to wait days before receiving their results.

While VA facilities across the country are able to administer COVID-19 tests, they must be sent to the department's Public Health Reference Laboratory in Palo Alto, California, for processing, according to the department. VA Medical Centers are also using local or state public health departments for test processing, according to Mandreucci.

Wilkie has insisted that the VA is prepared to handle coronavirus and is taking the necessary steps to protect veterans.

'We rehearse all the time, for epidemics and natural disasters — we are constantly rehearsing and just change the name on whatever we are dealing with ... if it's Ebola, if it's H1N1, that's how we deal with it,' Wilkie told CNN on March 4.

Several VA officials at facilities across the US told CNN this week that they have not noticed any changes in their daily routine or any added pressure on the staff.

However, multiple officials also made it clear that they were hesitant to say anything beyond the limited public guidance issued from VA headquarters in Washington.

'We're just following the same guidance as everyone else,' a VA official in Portland, Oregon, said. 'We are following the best guidance from national. Everything else, you need to talk to the people in DC.'

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 142311

Reported Deaths: 2472
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hennepin35484995
Ramsey14726372
Dakota10271139
Anoka9344155
Washington636273
Stearns625550
Scott360436
Olmsted340230
St. Louis325874
Wright273116
Clay252944
Nobles234318
Blue Earth21147
Carver18887
Sherburne183122
Kandiyohi18215
Rice170210
Mower154518
Winona133619
Chisago11562
Crow Wing114322
Benton103311
Lyon10306
Beltrami9618
Otter Tail9508
Waseca94510
Todd8967
Polk8364
Morrison8259
Steele8013
Itasca78817
Douglas7744
Nicollet77118
Freeborn7185
Le Sueur6646
Goodhue65111
Martin62618
Becker6214
McLeod6214
Isanti5995
Watonwan5824
Pine5770
Carlton5092
Chippewa4733
Mille Lacs44918
Hubbard4344
Cass4225
Wabasha4141
Dodge4130
Pipestone36617
Meeker3593
Rock3595
Brown3483
Roseau3300
Redwood29912
Yellow Medicine2986
Murray2973
Cottonwood2950
Fillmore2770
Renville27213
Sibley2663
Wadena2643
Faribault2520
Houston2381
Unassigned23853
Kanabec23710
Swift2252
Jackson2211
Pennington2181
Aitkin1982
Stevens1941
Lincoln1930
Koochiching1755
Pope1680
Big Stone1591
Marshall1511
Lac qui Parle1453
Wilkin1454
Clearwater1381
Norman1340
Lake1330
Mahnomen1292
Grant1054
Red Lake822
Traverse590
Kittson530
Lake of the Woods441
Cook190

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 122218

Reported Deaths: 1691
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Polk19732289
Woodbury743799
Linn6038133
Johnson602431
Black Hawk5974102
Dubuque550658
Scott487343
Story411118
Dallas357347
Pottawattamie337845
Sioux254417
Buena Vista230212
Marshall212236
Webster196015
Plymouth172831
Wapello158962
Clinton156228
Muscatine153958
Des Moines151611
Cerro Gordo150227
Crawford138714
Warren13137
Carroll120413
Jasper119734
Henry11245
Marion106811
Lee101312
Tama100538
Delaware82713
Dickinson7939
Wright7591
Boone7509
Mahaska73824
Bremer7199
Harrison69716
Washington69311
Jackson6853
Benton6482
Lyon5688
Clay5574
Louisa54415
Winnebago52119
Cedar5087
Winneshiek5079
Hardin5017
Jones5004
Kossuth4970
Clayton4923
Buchanan4875
Hamilton4825
Poweshiek47611
Floyd46211
Emmet45321
Iowa4429
Cass4233
Mills4233
Guthrie42015
Page4200
Cherokee4122
Sac4114
Butler4083
Fayette4064
Shelby4022
Allamakee3999
Franklin39518
Madison3743
Chickasaw3731
Hancock3676
Humboldt3593
Clarke3573
Grundy3406
Palo Alto3292
Calhoun3264
Osceola3020
Mitchell2961
Howard2879
Monroe27212
Union2645
Taylor2602
Jefferson2591
Appanoose2503
Monona2492
Pocahontas2442
Fremont2152
Lucas2136
Ida2122
Adair1971
Greene1930
Montgomery1907
Davis1884
Van Buren1882
Keokuk1731
Decatur1620
Audubon1601
Worth1470
Wayne1373
Ringgold992
Adams841
Unassigned60
Rochester
Clear
33° wxIcon
Hi: 45° Lo: 32°
Feels Like: 25°
Mason City
Clear
34° wxIcon
Hi: 44° Lo: 33°
Feels Like: 24°
Albert Lea
Clear
36° wxIcon
Hi: 46° Lo: 35°
Feels Like: 25°
Austin
Clear
36° wxIcon
Hi: 46° Lo: 34°
Feels Like: 29°
Charles City
Clear
34° wxIcon
Hi: 45° Lo: 33°
Feels Like: 25°
Tracking a breezy weekend
KIMT Radar
KIMT Eye in the sky

Latest Video

Image

Minnesota Democrats respond to Pres. Trump campaign event

Image

Sports Overtime highlights and scores from Friday

Image

Sara's 10pm Forecast - Friday

Image

Have you mailed in your absentee ballot?

Image

Biden supporters gather ahead of Pres. Trump campaign rally

Image

Socially distanced lounge opens up in Rochester

Image

Traffic expected for President Trump's rally

Image

Biden rally in Des Moines

Image

President Trump to speak at RST

Image

Shooting At Rochester Apartment

Community Events