Lawmakers Demand Answers from VA on Reports of Mask Shortages for Workers

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Virginia's two senators Tim Kaine, right, and Mark Warner both spoke to the Hampton Roads Chamber during a breakfast at The Main in Norfolk on Monday, December 10, 2018.  (Stephen M. Katz/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)
Virginia's two senators Tim Kaine, right, and Mark Warner both spoke to the Hampton Roads Chamber during a breakfast at The Main in Norfolk on Monday, December 10, 2018. (Stephen M. Katz/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)

Following reports from Department of Veterans Affairs employees that personal protective equipment like surgical masks and N95 respirators are being rationed among workers caring for veterans with the COVID-19 coronavirus, several Senate Democrats have asked for details about the VA's emergency pandemic supplies.

In a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie Monday, Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia, Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio and Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, said they are concerned that the guidance followed at VA regarding PPE distribution "may not be driven by best practices for VA staff and patients, but by PPE shortages."

The letter follows reports in The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere that some VA employees have received one surgical mask a week and ICU nurses are using one N95 respirator for one or more shifts while treating multiple patients.

Government Executive magazine also reported that some VA employees at medical facilities are not allowed to wear masks, and a medical support assistant was placed on an absent-without-leave status when she stayed home with COVID-19 symptoms while awaiting test results.

"Ensuring that VA medical facility staff, as well as clinical and administrative employees, have the appropriate PPE to protect their health and the health of the veterans they serve is essential to countering the pandemic," the senators wrote.

As of Wednesday, 1,600 VA employees were confirmed to have the COVID-19 coronavirus and 14 had died.

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In an interview the same day with Military.com, Wilkie said the infections among VA employees are a reflection of the nationwide spread of the virus, and no VA hospitals have run out of supplies. He said that VA follows Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for protective equipment distribution, adding that employees who need it have it.

"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 their letter, however, lawmakers questioned that guidance.

"We write to request information about the use of PPE by VA employees at hospitals, clinics, and other facilities, and whether the VA's guidance to its employees, based on guidelines from the CDC, is sufficiently robust in safeguarding staff," they wrote.

Last week, the federal Occupational and Safety Health Administration (OSHA) said it will investigate the issue of alleged worker exposure at VA to COVID-19. The inquiry followed an appeal from the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and other unions that their members have been placed at risk for infection under VA's current PPE distribution guidelines.

In their letter, the lawmakers requested details on PPE rationing at the department, VA's guidelines on use and care for employee PPE, decontamination and the financial details of VA PPE purchases.

"We ask that you take all necessary steps to ensure that VA employees have the resources and guidance required for their safety and the safety of our veterans," they wrote.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at patricia.kime@monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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