A report finds the Canandaigua VA is among veterans' facilities nationwide lacking equipment to handle COVID-19

This story has been updated since first publication to include comment from the VA Finger Lakes Healthcare System

A March report found that nearly 40 percent of VA facilities nationwide have inadequate supplies of personal protective equipment. The Finger Lakes Health Care System — the Canandaigua and Bath VAs — were among 21 VA facilities nationwide lacking the necessary PPE, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Inspector General report.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer highlighted the report Thursday. A release from his office stated that the VA’s response to the report “has been too slow, jeopardizing the safety and health of its employees and veterans' beneficiaries who come into contact with VA facilities and that the agency must do more to address the PPE shortages.”

The report found the Canandaigua and Bath VA medical centers to be without enough N95 masks. The Buffalo VA was found lacking in masks and gloves. Those VAs were also found inadequate regarding coordination between the facility and community — neither VA had reported plans for sharing ICU beds or personal protective equipment with community hospitals, according to the report.

Even after the OIG report, dated March 26, and following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance on the use of masks, the VA took 10 days to issue masks in its Buffalo and Batavia VA facilities, letting the virus spread unimpeded, stated Schumer.

The Veterans Health Administration “oversees more than 1,200 health care facilities in the U.S. and serves 775,000 New Yorkers, half of whom are seniors who are most at-risk for COVID-19 infection,” according to the release.

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 PPE, like masks and gloves, according to Schumer. However, the IG report, after visiting 230 facilities in March, shows facilities across the country were “short-staffed, low on protective equipment like masks, shields, gowns, and sanitizer,” he said.

“The report also indicated that almost a third of all medical centers could improve their screening process for visitors. Meanwhile, more than a third of all medical centers interviewed reported shortages of supplies and equipment, including respirator masks. Some medical centers were vastly short-staffed in intensive care units.”

“This issue is not just specific to the nation’s epicenter, New York State,” added the Schumer release. He cited an April 25 report by The Hill, which claims more than 6,000 VA patients have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and 400 have died. “Similarly, current reporting claims that over 2,200 of the VA’s national workforce has contracted the virus and at least 23 employees have died.  Unfortunately, the federal government has not made the issue simpler.

“Therefore, it is all the more imperative that the VA is capable of providing employees with PPE as they frequently come into contact with some of New York’s most vulnerable residents,” added Schumer.

Kathleen Hider, public affairs for the VA Finger Lakes Healthcare System, issued the following response: "The inspector general’s report was dated the day it was released. It doesn’t represent the rapidly changing situations at VA medical centers, where our employees continue to perform amazingly well as they implement the department’s comprehensive COVID-19 response plan.

"Canandaigua VA Medical Center is currently adhering to the same CDC contingency capacity postures the CDC recommends all health care facilities use.

"Canandaigua VA Medical Center’s PPE practices have helped limit its COVID-19 employee infection rates to less than .02 percent of the workforce. By contrast, 4.4 percent of University of Washington Medicine employees have tested positive and 2.1 percent of Henry Ford Health System’s workforce has tested positive."