Though there are no confirmed or even suspected cases of the novel coronavirus reported among U.S. veterans so far, the Department of Veterans Affairs has activated an emergency team to prepare for a potential outbreak.
"We are testing our processes. We are making sure our supply chain is full," VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said at a hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Thursday.
"We don't need any extra money now," he said, but added the situation could change rapidly if the virus, known formally as COVID-19, begins to impact veterans.
"If this develops into a pandemic, in which parts of the American health system break down, we're going to have a different conversation," said Dr. Richard Stone, head of the Veterans Health Administration.
As a precaution, the VA has activated its emergency management coordination cell (EMCC), the purpose of which is to coordinate national and local response efforts.<br> <br> But the department, which serves more than nine million veterans annually, doesn't want anyone to panic.
"At this time, no veterans receiving care at VA have been diagnosed with COVID-19," according to the VA's website.
At the hearing, Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Illinois, pressed Wilkie and Stone on getting more funding to prepare for a potential virus outbreak. She also urged them to communicate more directly with veterans on the threat.
"We are on the precipice of a significant public health crisis in our country," Underwood, a registered nurse and former senior adviser to the Department of Health and Human Services, said.
The Trump administration did not include any funding specifically for the VA in a $2.5 billion supplemental request sent to Congress on Monday to counter the spread of the coronavirus.
In a statement Monday, White House Office of Management and Budget spokeswoman Rachel Semmel said the $2.5 billion includes funding to "accelerate vaccine development, support preparedness and response activities, and to procure much needed equipment and supplies."
One of the complaints from local health officials in California, where the first confirmed case of coronavirus in a patient not traceable to China was reported this week, has been the lack of kits for testing for COVID-19.
Thus far, there have been at least 62 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S. -- the majority from recent evacuees from China and among the U.S. citizens who returned from aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship off Japan.
More than 83,000 people in at least 56 countries have been infected, with more than 2,800 deaths. New infections in other countries are now outpacing those in China, according to the World Health Organization in Geneva.
On Friday, WHO also raised its risk assessment on the spread of the coronavirus to "very high," one step short of declaring a global pandemic.
On Wall Street on Friday, the financial markets plunged again in what was on track to be the worst week for the markets since the 2008 recession. By mid-afternoon, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down another 700 points.
On its website, the VA had this advice for veterans: "If you have symptoms of fever, cough, and shortness of breath, please call your local VA medical center and select the option to speak to a nurse before visiting the facility. Tell them about your symptoms and any recent travel."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.