VA Unprepared to Deal with a Second Wave of COVID-19, Top Officials Say

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PFC Floyd K Lindstrom VA Clinic coronavirus 3200
Testing for COVID-19 for veterans is up outside PFC Floyd K. Lindstrom Department of Veterans Affairs Clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo., Thursday, April 2, 2020. (Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette via AP)

The Department of Veterans Affairs is saddled with an antiquated supply chain that is short of personal protective equipment (PPE) -- including N-95 masks and gowns -- swabs and other vital equipment to deal with a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, VA officials said Tuesday.

The VA's health care system currently has about a 30-day supply of protective gear on hand, but would need a supply backstop of at least 60 days or possibly six months to cope with a resurgence of the novel coronavirus in the fall, said Dr. Richard Stone, acting head of the Veterans Health Administration.

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At a hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, asked, "So, Dr. Stone, we're not where we need to be?"

Stone replied, "That is correct."

In his testimony, he added, "We recognize that a future pandemic wave may test all of us" in terms of the demand for adequate supplies for health care workers to protect themselves and treat patients.

For decades, the VA has relied on a "just in time" supply chain for deliveries that has been severely strained by the current pandemic, Stone said.

"This system has not delivered the response necessary," he said, but stressed that health care workers are adequately protected despite the shortcomings.

"Just in time for PPE is not the way to go," said Deborah Kramer, the acting under secretary for Health for Support Services at the VHA, who joined Stone at the hearing.

"The supply chain system is still broken," she said, and the capacity of America's manufacturers to meet the demand for PPE "has not caught up to the requirement."

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, noted that at least 33 VA health care workers had died of the virus, but Stone said there is no evidence as yet that the deaths were attributable to a lack of protective gear.

"It is impossible for any of us to understand how these employees got this disease" at this point, he said.

To suggest that "we have endangered personnel is just not borne out by the facts," Stone added.

He said that "no facility at VA ever ran out of protective equipment" despite staff and union reports of shortages that forced the re-use of protective gear.

Stone said the death rates for health care workers in Italy and Spain during the pandemic were above 10%, but 0.8% for the VA.

The low death rate amounted to "doing a good job in protecting our workers," he said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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