BREAKING NEWS Little Falls, N.Y. -- Multiple fire departments are on the scene of a structure fire in the city of Little Falls. Full Story

Veterans Affairs' staffing shortage raises concerns amid coronavirus outbreak

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, discusses why he would think twice about getting on a plane in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Posted: Mar 13, 2020 9:29 AM
Updated: Mar 14, 2020 10:00 AM


A chronic staffing shortage across the Department of Veterans Affairs is fueling new concerns that lives could be put at risk as the country's largest integrated health care system confronts the growing coronavirus pandemic.

Data released in August revealed 49,000 vacant positions across the department, which employs more than 390,000 people. While the agency's budget has since increased, tens of thousands of jobs remain unfilled.

'It could end up killing people,' one VA official who works for a regional system said, referring to the likelihood that medical personnel at its 1,243 health care facilities across the country will be overwhelmed by a significant rise in patients.

Earlier this month, the VA confirmed the first case in its system. That veteran is currently being treated for coronavirus at a VA facility in Palo Alto, California.

Fifteen other cases, either confirmed or presumed to be positive, have since surfaced at VA facilities in Nevada, Louisiana, Washington state, Georgia, South Dakota and Colorado.

As of Friday, the VA says it has administered 140 tests nationwide, up from 70 just two days prior. That means roughly 9% of those tests have registered indications of coronavirus, a staggering result considering the VA provides care for millions of veterans.

The VA has 3,000 test kits available,1,000 of which were provided by the CDC and will be used first. An additional 2,000 VA-developed tests will only be used if necessary, VA spokesperson Christina Mandreucci told CNN.

In an interview with CNN this week, President Donald Trump's former VA secretary, David Shulkin, agreed that staffing shortages could result in avoidable patient deaths and said it could also limit the VA's ability to proactively test patients.

'When there's time to look back upon the situation and we dissect the response, I think the big deficiency is going to be the fact that we were not prepared for testing,' said Shulkin, noting that it was clear back in December that coronavirus was becoming a significant infectious outbreak.

Older veterans at risk

Most concerning are staffing shortages at facilities that serve a high number of older veterans, a patient population that is among the most vulnerable to infection.

'What demographic uses VA the most and who is most at risk? Elderly people,' a former VA official told CNN. 'Where are those people located? The same places where the system is already overwhelmed.'

On March 10, more than 134 nursing homes operated by the VA adopted a 'no visitors' policy in an effort to lower the risk of exposure to the coronavirus among older veterans.

While Mandreucci told CNN that 'no staffing issues are impacting its response to COVID-19,' the department has been grappling with a well-known staffing problem for some time. Lawmakers and VA officials have sought to address the situation for several years with little to show for it. Mandreucci maintains the VA's workforce continues to grow, citing a turnover rate that 'compares favorably to other cabinet level agencies.'

Yet, the Trump administration's struggle to address the coronavirus outbreak has renewed concerns over VA's failure to fill key positions at medical facilities across the country. Congressional aides familiar with the staffing shortages who spoke to CNN this week acknowledged it's a serious problem that could get exacerbated as the virus spreads.

Open to civilians?

Should the coronavirus continue to worsen, the VA could be called on to open its doors to civilians in case of a national health emergency -- a directive that has been triggered during previous crises. In 2016, the department authorized VA grief counselors and emergency responders to provide assistance to victims following the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida.

Shulkin told CNN that were he still running the VA, he would have already issued the directive in response to the coronavirus. 'I believe the necessary authorities are already in place. I do believe that one should coordinate all their decisions with both Congress and the executive branch,' he said.

As of now, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has not taken that step, but the option remains on the table amid warnings that the outbreak is expected to spread. The VA has deployed some resources to help other federal agencies conduct screening of repatriated Americans.

One VA official working at a facility outside Washington, DC, told CNN that they believe VA resources would only be offered to the civilian population in a worst case scenario and that they were not aware of any discussions at the local level about that happening.

Some VA medical facilities are uniquely equipped to treat patients with respiratory symptoms that have been associated with coronavirus, offering so-called negative pressure isolation rooms that contain air flow to help prevent cross-contamination.

The VA has 1,000 of those rooms throughout its system, according to Shulkin, more than any other health care system in the country. But they're only effective if properly staffed, he said.

Emergency preparations

The VA has taken some steps to address the coronavirus outbreak in recent weeks and remains more flexible than most health care systems in its ability to deploy staff to areas in need of additional assistance, maintaining a longstanding plan to deploy clinical and non-clinical staff in emergency situations

'VA's emergency preparedness exercises began weeks before COVID-19 was confirmed in the US. These exercises are an essential part of VA's ability to meet the specialized healthcare needs of veterans across this widespread challenge,' Mandreucci said when asked if facilities were properly equipped.

Still, veterans must meet very specific criteria in order to be prioritized for testing, placing similar restrictions on those who have access to tests similar to civilian patients.

In order to meet the current standard for testing, individuals must have demonstrated symptoms and had exposure to someone who has tested positive or traveled to one of the regions the administration has designated as 'high risk,' Mandreucci confirmed, adding that the department is implementing the same guidance issued by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Additionally, some veterans who are tested have to wait days before receiving their results.

While VA facilities across the country are able to administer COVID-19 tests, they must be sent to the department's Public Health Reference Laboratory in Palo Alto, California, for processing, according to the department. VA Medical Centers are also using local or state public health departments for test processing, according to Mandreucci.

Wilkie has insisted that the VA is prepared to handle coronavirus and is taking the necessary steps to protect veterans.

'We rehearse all the time, for epidemics and natural disasters — we are constantly rehearsing and just change the name on whatever we are dealing with ... if it's Ebola, if it's H1N1, that's how we deal with it,' Wilkie told CNN on March 4.

Several VA officials at facilities across the US told CNN this week that they have not noticed any changes in their daily routine or any added pressure on the staff.

However, multiple officials also made it clear that they were hesitant to say anything beyond the limited public guidance issued from VA headquarters in Washington.

'We're just following the same guidance as everyone else,' a VA official in Portland, Oregon, said. 'We are following the best guidance from national. Everything else, you need to talk to the people in DC.'

New York Coronavirus Cases

County data is updated nightly.

Cases: 2108510

Reported Deaths: 53522
CountyCasesDeaths
Kings28043910447
Queens2771309949
Suffolk2008953399
Nassau1835453174
Bronx1833236585
New York1381274497
Westchester1296002286
Erie895411803
Richmond749181839
Monroe688791110
Orange48281843
Rockland46924963
Onondaga38888677
Dutchess29460445
Albany24687355
Oneida22590513
Niagara20027371
Broome18607366
Saratoga15352168
Ulster13897257
Schenectady13190205
Rensselaer11222142
Putnam1060492
Chautauqua8948144
Chemung7754135
Oswego761591
Ontario740293
Steuben6946144
Sullivan667075
St. Lawrence662896
Cayuga633692
Jefferson612268
Wayne577570
Cattaraugus571891
Genesee5435124
Herkimer5182109
Clinton483533
Madison456089
Livingston451760
Fulton442091
Tompkins434452
Montgomery4254125
Columbia4061104
Cortland391962
Tioga382763
Warren365857
Wyoming358053
Allegany355587
Chenango349576
Otsego346047
Greene340279
Washington315955
Orleans311883
Lewis280536
Franklin256112
Delaware237738
Seneca200956
Schoharie169217
Essex159226
Yates117826
Schuyler107014
Hamilton3132
Unassigned9214
Out of NY0247
Utica
Partly Cloudy
69° wxIcon
Hi: 77° Lo: 57°
Feels Like: 69°
Oneonta
Partly Cloudy
66° wxIcon
Hi: 74° Lo: 58°
Feels Like: 66°
Herkimer
Partly Cloudy
69° wxIcon
Hi: 78° Lo: 58°
Feels Like: 69°
Old Forge
Partly Cloudy
69° wxIcon
Hi: 74° Lo: 56°
Feels Like: 69°
WKTV Radar
WKTV Temperatures
WKTV Severe Weather
Enchanted Forest Water Safari Summer Fun Giveaway
Senior Send-Off brought to you by Herkimer College
18 Facets of Summer Photo Contest brought to you by Herkimer Diamond Mines
Looking for work or looking to hire? Check out the WKTV Job Fair!
Alivana Ready for Summer Giveaway
Saluting Those Who Are Proud 2 Serve