Veterans Affairs medical facilities across the country are screening patients and restricting visitors to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus as the agency grapples with five cases of COVID-19.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said visitors will not be allowed at all in the agency's 135 nursing homes, which house more than 8,000 veterans, saying those facilities are "going into an emergency situation."
One veteran has a confirmed case of the virus, VA officials said. Four others have tested positive, but those findings have not yet been confirmed.
The agency did not specify where the veterans are, saying they are “either in isolation at home, in accordance with CDC guidelines, or being cared for in isolation by staff who are specially trained on the latest CDC treatment guidelines and utilizing personal protective equipment and infection control techniques.”
Wilkie has said a veteran with the virus was being treated at the VA hospital in Palo Alto, California. Another veteran who tested positive was being treated in the North Las Vegas VA hospital, according to the Nevada Independent. A third was being treated at the VA hospital in New Orleans, the first presumptive case in Louisiana, The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate reported Monday.
VA spokeswoman Christina Mandreucci told USA TODAY none of the patients has died. She declined to provide more information about their cases or how they might have contracted the virus, citing privacy concerns.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is the nation’s largest integrated health care system, with 170 hospitals and more than 1,000 outpatient clinics that serve nearly 9 million veterans across the country. According to department estimates, roughly half of veterans are more than 65 years old, and many have underlying health conditions that could make them more vulnerable.
“We will get over this and we will make sure everything is done to protect those who have done so much for our country," Wilkie said Tuesday at an American Legion conference in Washington.
Coronavirus screening, visitor restrictions
Across the country, VA patients at hospitals and clinics are being asked a series of questions about symptoms, recent travel and contact with anyone who has COVID-19. Those determined to be at risk “are immediately isolated to prevent potential spread to others,” Mandreucci said.
The VA is testing patients and sending the samples to local health departments or to an agency laboratory for analysis. The agency has at least 2,000 tests.
Some of the screening is done over the phone before patients show up for appointments. Patients also are screened when they arrive. “This may lengthen entry times, so patients are advised to allow for that when arriving for appointments,” Mandreucci said.
Some VA facilities have instituted tougher policies, particularly those in areas with higher numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases. In Washington, where most of the country’s deaths from the virus have occurred, VA medical centers in Seattle and Tacoma are not allowing children under 12 years old in the facilities.
Similar restrictions are in place in Phoenix, Arizona; Manchester, New Hampshire; and Asheville, North Carolina, where patients or anyone with a runny nose or cough are required to wear masks.
Mandreucci said outings have been temporarily suspended at some VA nursing homes.
“Such measures are routine and not unusual for this time of the year, and we look forward to reinstating our volunteer visitors and community outings once it is safe to do so,” she said.
Veterans 'very afraid'
Coronavirus impacts at the agency have not been limited to its health care facilities. The VA cancelled a sports clinic scheduled later this month in Colorado, where hundreds of disabled veterans were scheduled to ski, sled and play hockey.
“While the Centers for Disease Control still considers COVID-19 to be a low threat to the general American public, VA made this decision out of an abundance of caution,” the VA said in a statement.
Veterans organizations are trying to ensure members get as much information as possible about how the VA is addressing the outbreak.
“We have a lot of members who are very afraid,” said Joe Chenelly, executive director of American Veterans, or AMVETS.
VA officials announced last week that its medical centers were prepared for the virus and have special isolation rooms for coronavirus patients. “Unfortunately, the AMVETS members I’m speaking with haven’t heard about those measures," Chenelly said. "They don’t know if they can or should be tested at VA medical centers or outpatient facilities.”
Health is “by far the most pressing concern for many, many veterans,” many of whom have complicated health issues, Chenelly said.
“They find joy in their senior years by being active in their communities and traveling,” he said. “Both of those favorite pastimes are being put on hold, and no one knows for how long.”
Veterans who gathered in Washington, D.C., Tuesday for the American Legion conference said they were keenly aware of the vulnerability of elderly veterans.
Eddie Asberry, Georgia commander for the Legion, receives medical care at a VA outpatient clinic near his home in Powder Springs, Georgia. He was screened there for the coronavirus before an appointment 10 days ago.
“I think they have a good plan to combat this,” the Vietnam-era Air Force veteran said. “It’s here — let’s contain it and don’t let it get out of hand.”