VA medical facilities struggle to cope with the coronavirus

National News

Clarence Shields, an Army veteran, pickets with a small group of activists from the American Federation of Government Employees local 424 and the National Association of Government Employees local R3-19 during the coronavirus pandemic, outside the Baltimore VA Medical Center, Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in Baltimore. The Department of Veterans Affairs is struggling with shortages of workers at its health care facilities as it cares for veterans infected with the novel coronavirus. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

BOSTON (AP) — As she treated patient after patient infected with the coronavirus at a Veterans Affairs medical center in New York City, Heather Espinal saw stark warning signs.

So many nurses had called in sick, she said, that the Bronx facility was woefully understaffed. It lacked specially equipped rooms for infected patients, she said, and didn’t have enough masks, gloves and other protective gear to guard against the spread of the highly contagious disease.

Espinal, a member of the union National Nurses United, says she and her colleagues were told to do the best they could, using a single N95 face mask for an entire shift rather than getting a new one for each patient. In early April, she tested positive for COVID-19.

“I definitely believe it was related to me being at work,” said the 34-year-old Espinal, who was out sick for two weeks.

Espinal is one of 1,900 VA health care workers who have become sick with the coronavirus, according to agency documents obtained by The Associated Press. Twenty have died. Another 3,600 of the 300,000-plus VA health care employees are quarantined and unable to work because they have been exposed to the virus, according to VA figures.

As the coronavirus spreads across the U.S., VA health care facilities are struggling with shortages of workers and the equipment necessary to protect employees from contracting the virus, according to VA staff and internal documents obtained by the AP.

“We thought we were doing everything right, even with reusing these N95 respirators. But we still ended up getting sick,” Espinal said.

More than 5,700 veterans treated by the VA have been infected by the coronavirus, and nearly 380 have died.

The Labor Department is now investigating, and several Democrats in Congress sent a letter Thursday calling on President Donald Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act to get more supplies for VA health facilities.

The VA, responsible for the health care of 9 million military veterans, denied it was short of supplies and stressed that it follows federal health guidelines when rationing personal protective equipment like masks and gloves.

“VA’s PPE conservation posture is precisely why the department has not encountered any PPE shortages that have negatively impacted patient care or employee safety,” said spokeswoman Christina Mandreucci. She said the VA has moved aggressively in recent weeks to add staff, hiring 3,183 people, including 981 nurses, from March 29 to April 11.

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