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First Miami VA worker dies from coronavirus after being infected at Broward clinic

By JAY WEAVER | The Miami Herald | Published: April 28, 2020

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MIAMI (Tribune News Service) — A Miami VA Healthcare System employee who provided peer support for military veterans at an outpatient clinic in Broward County has died from coronavirus — the first VA staffer to succumb to the respiratory disease since the coronavirus outbreak last month.

In an email, the Miami VA’s director Kalautie JangDhari confirmed the death of the staff employee but not the person’s name or job in the healthcare system serving Miami-Dade and Broward counties. A spokesperson for the Miami VA declined to provide additional information Monday.

According to colleagues, the deceased staffer was a military veteran who had been homeless before he was hired by the Miami VA in its peer support program that provides mental health and other counseling services to fellow veterans. He was working at the William “Bill” Kling VA Clinic in Sunrise when he became infected with the coronavirus and was transferred to the Miami VA hospital, where he died about a week ago.

The Miami VA’s director issued an email late Friday informing about 3,000 employees of their colleague’s death.

“I am saddened to share the news of one of our VA employee family, a veteran hero who recently passed from complications related to COVID-19,” JangDhari’s email said. “On behalf of the Miami VA leadership team, our thoughts go out to all friends, family and coworkers as we mourn this very special person.

“As we continue our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot overlook the selflessness of all our employees throughout the Miami VA serving our patients,” she added. “Your courage epitomizes your commitment and devotion that our Miami VA shows in caring for our nation’s veterans.”

JangDhari said the Miami VA could not release the deceased employee’s name “due to privacy concerns.”

The Miami VA hospital has experienced a steady rise in staff employees and veterans testing positive for COVID-19, but nothing like VA facilities in New York, New Orleans and Detroit.

At least 40 VA staff employees in Miami-Dade and Broward have been diagnosed with COVID-19, with one resulting in death, according to Mary Kay Rutan, the federal VA spokeswoman in Florida.

“Most of these employees are recovered and being followed by our Occupational Health team in accordance with VHA and [Centers for Disease Control] guidelines for healthcare personnel,” Rutan said. “Due to privacy concerns, we cannot provide additional information.”

More than 90 veterans have confirmed COVID-19 infections, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs records show as of Monday. That’s more than one-third of all such cases in Florida. Also, there have been five deaths at the Miami VA hospital due to the dangerous virus, accounting for about half of the 11 deaths at federal VA facilities in Florida.

In her email, the Miami VA’s director also addressed the shortage of N95 respirator masks for healthcare workers caring for veterans who have tested positive for COVID-19 and been hospitalized at the downtown hospital. A week ago, she had told nurses, doctors and other healthcare workers that they would have to start sanitizing and reusing their N95 masks because of the shortage. But in the recent email, she assured them that there was an ample supply and they could obtain fresh replacements. Other staff employees who don’t work directly with COVID-19 patients are required to use surgical masks.

“Miami VA never required the reuse of N95s,” Rutan said. “Universal masking is in effect and has been for weeks.”

Shortages of personal protective equipment have plagued the VA healthcare system throughout the country, not just at the Miami VA facility. Last month, the inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs found that the Miami VA and dozens of others had “inadequate” supplies of masks and other protective equipment.

Last week, in an interview with the Washington Post, the physician in charge of the country’s largest healthcare system acknowledged the shortage at VA medical centers nationwide — and said masks and other supplies are being diverted for the national stockpile.

“I had 5 million masks incoming that disappeared,” said Richard Stone, executive in charge of the sprawling Veterans Health Administration. He acknowledged “austerity levels” at some hospitals.

Stone told the Post that the Federal Emergency Management Agency directed vendors with equipment on order from the VA to send it instead to FEMA to replenish the government’s rapidly depleting emergency stockpile. FEMA has responded to President Donald Trump’s decision to invoke the Defense Production Act to boost supplies as governors have made frantic requests for masks, ventilators, medical gowns and other supplies, depleting the stockpile.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents hundreds of thousands of VA workers, says nurses are still struggling and are often given surgical masks and face shields instead of the N95 respirator masks. They are more effective at limiting the spread of the coronavirus.

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