16 Apr V.A. Health Care Workers Balk at New Safety Practices
April 16th, 2020
VA officials have denied that their workers have inadequate gear. The VA Healthcare system serves 9 Million veterans and has over 390,000 employees. The Department of Veterans Affairs is running into an issue: Workers are allegedly taking home extra masks and other forms of protective gear.
The Department has decided that they will search employees’ belongings before they leave the hospitals to deter employees from taking home protective equipment. Officials have drafted a memo to define the policy update.White House officials do not want to highlight the shortages of protective gear because the VA is the Nation’s largest healthcare system.
Doctors, Nurses, and other healthcare professionals have been facing a dangerous shortage of masks and other protective gear since the first case of coronavirus was diagnosed in the United States.
The Center For Disease Control & Prevention has eased restrictions of it’s health care safety guidelines. The CDC has never recommended frequent use of the same mask, until now. These policy updates and changes to safety guidelines have caused fear and anger amongst health care workers.
As complaints are increasing, the VA Department officials have denied on several occasions that they have inadequate protection for their employees. At least 1,604 workers have tested positive for the coronavirus, and 14 have died.
The department (until recently) was recommending that healthcare workers that tested positive still return to work if they were showing no symptoms. This is opposite of the advice the federal government is providing to the rest of the nation.
The department has since changed it’s stance on the issue and now says people who are “under investigation” for possibly having the virus could come to work. Those diagnosed with coronavirus are no longer allowed to return to work.
Over the past few weeks, hundreds of workers have taken sick days. This puts more pressure on the existing staff as the VA pushes to open 1,500 beds to be used in their facilities by civilians to help combat the overflow in local hospitals. Guidelines concerning the virus that are sent to the department’s 170 hospital centers now have to be cleared & approved by the White House, which slows communications, according to officials.
“Everyone is extremely anxious,” said Jason Gearhart, a nursing assistant at the Pittsburgh V.A. Medical Center. “People keep using the same mask they have had forever. Gearhart also noted that workers in veterans’ facilities are using their N95 masks for days at a time, storing them in paper bags when they are not working. “They say they are working on refurbishing them,” Mr. Gearhart said.
Workers have no access to coronavirus tests and are not called when a colleague becomes sick. There is no effort to make them aware that they could have been exposed, he said. “It feels like our lives and our families lives and veterans’ lives don’t matter here,” Mr. Gearhart added.
“We begged for P.P.E., and they said they didn’t have any to give us,” said Myoshi North, who works at the front desk of a clinic, referring to personal protective equipment. Myoshi North is now ill.
A man was arrested in Georgia last week for attempting to defraud the Department of Veterans Affairs by offering $750 million in nonexistent protective gear. In Oregon, a radiology tech filed a whistle-blower complaint after the worker claimed to be exposed to a patient that had the virus without being informed prior.
The hotline for the department’s inspector general has been receiving a high volume of calls from health care workers complaining about a lack of protective gear, officials said.
“What the V.A. Administration is saying to the public about safety is, quite frankly, not true,” said Alma Lee, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees National Veterans Affairs Council, which represents 260,000 department employees. “Our members don’t have adequate P.P.E., appropriate leave policies, hazard pay or widespread telework. This has to change.”
Administrative employees who work at department offices outside of it’s health care facilities have alleged that they have not been permitted to work from home. Dr. Richard Stone, who runs the department’s Veterans Health Administration, has told employees over the phone during meetings that “they need to go the extra mile for veterans.”
“Currently, every health care system is taking steps to conserve P.P.E.,” said Christina Mandreucci, a spokeswoman for the Department of Veterans Affairs. “All V.A. facilities are equipped with essential items and supplies to handle coronavirus cases, and all V.A. employees have the appropriate personal protective equipment, as per C.D.C. guidelines.”
Under the VA Healthcare System guidelines, employees treating coronavirus patients get one face mask per day, and N95 respirators are given when necessary. Workers are encouraged to reuse them, Ms. Mandreucci said.
Numerous VA health care workers said they were instructed to keep their masks in a paper bag so they could reuse it the next day. One official at the department noted in a meeting that the situation with masks seemed “dire” and that they feared there would not be proper filtration with old masks.