The War at Home: How the VA is Responding to the Coronavirus Outbreak

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is rapidly adjusting its operations to better serve those suffering from the coronavirus. Veterans mainly access care through the department’s Tricare healthcare system, but countless VA centers around the country are quickly filling up with patients who have been infected with the virus.

Veterans tend to be older and suffer from more chronic conditions than the general population, making them that much more vulnerable to the coronavirus. The VA is doing its best to protect and care for these patients, while serving non-veteran patients suffering from the virus at the same time. Look at how the VA is working to protect our nation’s heroes amid this growing public health crisis.

Veterans Take a Hit

The coronavirus pandemic seems to be hitting the veteran community especially hard, according to preliminary data. There are around 18 million combat veterans in the U.S. and the number of veterans with the virus shot up to 4,946 on Thursday of this week, marking an 11% increase in just 24 hours. Sixteen VA centers across the country are now reporting more than 100 virus cases, and 284 veterans have died from the virus nationwide. Meanwhile, around 1,6000 VA staffers have been infected with the virus and 14 have passed away from COVID-19-related symptoms.

According to the data, the death rate among veterans that contract the virus is around 6%, compared to just 4% of the general population.

Why are veterans more at risk?

Many veterans suffer from a range of health issues that may make them more vulnerable to COVID-19. Those who have served in the military tend to be more prone to some forms of cancer than the general population. They also suffer from more physical injuries, including musculoskeletal and joint injuries, tinnitus, hearing loss, and traumatic brain injury. They are also more susceptible to anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide. In 2020, just 5% of U.S. veterans rated their health as excellent.

The average age of U.S. veterans is 58 years old, making this population all the more vulnerable to the coronavirus. They tend to be between the ages of 45 and 64, with many having served their country all the way back in the 1970s.

Social distancing isn’t always possible for some who have served. Veterans account for around 11% of the adult homeless population. There were 14,345 unsheltered veterans in 2019. While homeless vets tend to be younger than the rest of the veteran population, they may contract the virus in public spaces, food banks, and cramped living quarters.

How the VA is Stepping Up

As the number of infected veterans continues to rise, some VA centers are feeling the brunt of the pandemic more than others. The Brooklyn VA center in New York has already seen 36 fatalities, while the Bronx facility has seen 33 vets pass away from COVID-19. The New Orleans VA center is currently dealing with 436 cases of coronavirus.

However, the Department of Veterans Affairs is doing more than just caring for our nation’s heroes. The VA is currently one of the largest health systems in the country, with 161 individual facilities. VA facilities in New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, and other hard-hit areas are trying to treat as many non-veteran patients with the virus as possible without impeding veterans’ access to care.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie recently released a statement saying, “Helping Veterans is our first mission, but in many locations across the country, we’re helping states and local communities. VA is in this fight not only for the millions of veterans we serve each day; we’re in the fight for the people of the United States.”

Access to PPE Remains a Sticking Point

Despite the encouraging assistance from the VA, many care providers say the system is not doing enough to protect their health. Considering a staggering 1,600 VA workers have come down with the virus, some are starting to question the department’s ability to contain the virus within its staff members.

The VA healthcare system currently employs 390,000 workers. According to recent reports, some VA workers had started taking personal protective equipment (PPE) home in their bags, fearing they may not have enough protection to do their jobs. Therefore, the department started checking everyone’s belongings before they went home at the end of their shifts. However, that policy has since been rescinded.

Reports have also come out saying the VA asked providers who had tested positive for the virus to come back into work if they weren’t showing symptoms, contradicting the latest guidelines from the federal government. The VA now says providers who may have the virus can come to work if they aren’t showing symptoms, but not those who have tested positive.

While the VA says it’s doing its best to address these concerns and replenish PPE supplies, many providers remain anxious about their health.

The VA is trying to respond to the pandemic while caring for some of our nation’s most vulnerable citizens. If you are a veteran who is suffering from flu-like symptoms or know someone who is, remember to call your local VA center before coming into the facility. You can also sign into your My HealtheVet account to message your care provider directly.

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