As the number of active COVID-19 cases among its patients declined slightly this week, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced a three-part plan for resuming operations at its facilities in the coming months.
The effort will largely depend on local COVID-19 conditions, including a declining number of patients with symptoms, a reduction in those testing positive and widespread availability of testing.
While the VA's Central Office has drafted a tiered plan for operations, decisions will be made at the local level and may not be in line with other state or federal reopening goals, VA officials said.
"A central planning solution for resuming regular operations makes no sense here because some areas of the country will take longer to recover, while other areas have seen minimal cases," VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a release. "That's why we're letting local conditions dictate our next steps."
The first phase, to occur within the next month, will largely consist of assessments by VA facilities to determine the risks and impact of increasing operations, such as non-emergency procedures like clinical visits and lab tests and admissions to spinal cord injury units. Officials will also explore the capacity for community health care providers to resume seeing veteran patients.
In this phase, the Veterans Benefits Administration will increase virtual hearings and formulate plans to resume face-to-face compensation and pension exams, while the National Cemetery Administration will prepare for resuming memorial services and burials that will be held later.
Phase 2 will include expanding non-emergency procedures and medical visits to hospitals and clinics; reopening the department's Fisher Houses; resuming memorial services and burials with military honors, with limited attendance based on local conditions; and in-person services at VBA regional offices, by appointment.
The final phase will build on the others: resuming visitor access to all VA health facilities, including nursing homes, expanding services at VHA and VBA locations, and resuming all other normal operations.
VA officials said the work will be done with employee health and safety in mind, and all criteria and parameters "must be met before starting the phases and may precipitate a return to an earlier phase."
"The pandemic is not over, and VA continues to provide response efforts," the plan notes. "The timeline for moving through this transition process will be dependent on the ability to minimize and control exposure and infection levels and maintain a constant decrease over time."
As of Friday, 8,137 veteran VA patients were confirmed to have contracted the novel coronavirus since the start of the pandemic and 619 had died. An additional 212 veterans deaths were reported to the VA.
The number of new patient cases at VA facilities declined in the past week, with no new cases reported Friday from the previous day and 56 cases between Wednesday and Thursday. On Monday, the VA reported 261 new cases in 24 hours.
More than 1,200 VA employees have been diagnosed with the illness, including 26 who have died.