Allegations that the Department of Veterans Affairs is rationing protective equipment among staff who need it and underreporting cases of COVID-19 are untrue, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said Thursday.
In an interview with Military.com, Wilkie insisted the department has "not put anyone in harm's way" and stands by the figures it regularly releases on veteran COVID-19 cases, now at 4,946 confirmed infections and 284 deaths.
Soon after the pandemic hit the VA medical system, nurses in hard-hit cities like New York and Atlanta reported equipment shortages, with some saying they were running out of paper gowns and shoe covers, and they were allocated just one N95 respirator mask per shift. Under normal circumstances, they are given separate masks for each infectious ICU patient under their responsibility.
In addition, VA employees not caring for COVID-19 patients have raised concerns about being issued just one surgical mask per week, a situation that leaves them vulnerable to contracting the illness from contaminated masks. Some 1,600 VA employees have confirmed cases of the coronavirus to date, and 14 have died from the illness. While 11 of those who died were not directly caring for patients, the employees say their lives are being endangered by VA policies.
Wilkie however, disagrees. He said the number of sick employees at VA is a reflection of what is happening nationwide with community spread of the virus, and added that while there initially were issues with the department's supply chain, "not one of our hospitals has ever run out of supplies."
"We've got 400,000 employees and someone says, 'I can't change into protective gear three times a day' ... I can tell you that in the emergency rooms and on the COVID wards, we are providing all those with [personal protective equipment]," Wilkie said in the interview.
According to Wilkie, VA began readying for a possible pandemic the last week of January, establishing 19 emergency operating centers for moving material and equipment around the country as shortages arose.
"We prepared to do what we call a cross-deck. Whenever there was a reported shortage anywhere in the country, we could move material around the nation," Wilkie said.
Still, despite Wilkie's insistence that VA providers have adequate supplies to meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, nurses at the Atlanta VA Medical Center say they plan to conduct a protest on Friday during their shift change to call for more protective gear, including N95 respirators.
"As a nurse during this pandemic, my job is to protect and heal veterans, but without proper protective equipment, I cannot safely do my job that has been my calling for 26 years," said Dana Horton, a representative for National Nurses United at the Atlanta VA facility. "I know working without the proper protections, I am endangering myself, my co-workers, the veterans I care for and our community by possibly exposing others to COVID-19."
Reports about the VA's PPE shortages and rationing also were followed this week by a report in Military Times that a VA medical facility's COVID-19 cases were under-reported on the official VA count, raising questions about the validity of the VA's data issued daily Monday through Friday.
According to internal documents obtained by Military Times, the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center in Ohio had 66 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among veteran patients, but the official VA count listed just over half that amount, 37.
A subsequent article by the Daily Mail concluded that the cases in the Veterans Affairs health system "may be double the number officially reported at some medical care sites."
Wilkie said it wasn't appropriate for the Daily Mail to assume that other sites' data were inaccurate based on the Cleveland documents.
"Cleveland was trying to get its numbers right," Wilkie said. "We've had over 40,000 tests, [and more than 4,900] have tested positive. Sadly  have passed away. But of those, about 3,600 are at home, 190 are in our intensive care beds and 460 are in the acute beds. We have not been overwhelmed."
The VA is the country's largest single health system, serving 9.6 million veterans at 170 medical centers and 1,074 clinics. With 14,000 hospital beds, more than half of which are empty, Wilkie said, the system has been able to execute its "fourth mission," providing a health care backstop for the nation's 3,000-plus hospitals by opening up beds to non-veteran patients.
As of Thursday, Wilkie said, the department has cared for 88 non-veteran patients in New York, 26 New Jersey, 33 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 16 in Detroit and four in New Mexico.
It also is providing support to state-run veterans homes, taking 12 veterans from Massachusetts state veterans homes and seven community nursing home patients to VA facilities in New England.
VA also has agreed to provide 90 nurses to support the hard-hit state veterans homes in New Jersey and lent VA employees to disinfect two non-veterans homes in Massachusetts.
"If we were overwhelmed ... I could not do that," Wilkie said.
The number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise in the U.S., topping 667,225 confirmed cases as of Thursday, with nearly 33,000 deaths.
Across the VA system, New Orleans has logged the highest number of confirmed cases among veterans, with 436 cases. With 30 deaths, the city has the third-highest mortality count. It's behind the VA's Manhattan and Brooklyn, New York, facilities, with 36 deaths among 338 patients, and Queens, New York, with 33 deaths among 387 patients.
'We Prepared for the Worst'
Wilkie said he thinks cases in New York, New Orleans and Detroit may have peaked, but he is watching the West, where there have been few cases so far, and New England, from Boston to Providence, Rhode Island.
"We prepared for the worst ... and we're not seeing the worst. Doesn't mean it can't come but right now I'm just not seeing that explosion," Wilkie said.
He added that VA has hired 5,700 employees in the last two weeks, including 1,300 nurses, bringing them onto VA payrolls in three days, rather than the weeks or months it normally takes for the government to hire personnel.
Wilkie, a member of President Donald Trump's COVID-19 Task Force, has come under fire from some veterans advocates for being somewhat invisible during the pandemic. Unlike Department of Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Wilkie does not hold frequent press briefings and is rarely seen on the television interview circuit.
Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and host of the Angry Americans podcast, has launched a #whereswilkie campaign on Twitter to press the secretary into leadership. He also appeared on MSNBC this week saying the VA's insistence that it is fine, is "devastating and dangerous," and Wilkie has not been "transparent" on VA's handling of COVID-19.
"He is totally AWOL. He should be the lead element on combating the virus and providing support for not only the veterans, but the public. He's been MIA and that should concern everyone," Rieckhoff said.
Wilkie called the charges "absolute nonsense."
"This is the 65th interview I've done since March 17," Wilkie said. "The virus has forced me into my office. I can't go anywhere, but I just briefed the House Appropriations Committee today and I've got a House Veterans Affairs Committee this afternoon. Yesterday I spoke to 100 veterans service organizations for over an hour, and I do that every week. I speak to the states and I speak to the VA directors regularly ... I'll leave those statistics to stand on their own."