Veterans affairs secretary visits Hampton Roads facilities, praises front-line workers

Dept. of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie speaks with media after arriving at the Hampton VA Medical Center on Friday, July 31, 2020, in Hampton, Va.


By LISA VERNON SPARKS | The Daily Press | Published: August 1, 2020

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NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie made a quick Hampton Roads visit Friday to meet with health care workers.

“We have the best story in government ... people have not left their posts,” Wilkie said through a mask. “We have fewer requests for leaves and fewer absences at VA at this time, than we did this time last year when there was no epidemic. People are staying at their posts and that’s a testament to their dedication.”

Wilkie, who spent part of his youth in Norfolk and later at Norfolk Naval Base, made stops at the Hampton VA Medical Center and community-based clinics in Chesapeake and Virginia Beach as a part of a national tour. In Hampton Roads some 58,000 veterans are served by four VA centers.

He stressed one of the VA’s missions in times of emergency response is to assist non-VA hospital centers. He added that VA staff are now in 46 states taking care of non-veterans, deployed in nursing homes around the country.

“They were going into state-run nursing homes, where people were using plastic garbage bags ... as PPE,” he said. “We shared materials, we share lessons, we shared on people. And this trip is about ... thanking them for being on the front lines and putting themselves in danger.”

While the number of COVID-19 cases escalated around Hampton Roads in recent weeks, area hospitals have been treating more patients, closely monitoring coronavirus bed capacity, their ability to provide the medical treatments and secure enough personal protection equipment.

The Hampton VA Medical Center is treating 197 patients at its facilities, a hospital spokesman said in an email. The Hampton VA has 86 beds available for acute cases and 127 long-term care beds.

Sheila K. Elliot, president of the American Federation of Government Workers, Local 2328, said union leadership learned of Wilkie’s visit the day before and requested a meeting, but had not received a response.

“I would welcome Secretary Wilkins, if he were in tune with the staff to making sure that we have the tools we need to take care of the veterans and to allow our union to participate in that process,” Elliot, a clinical pharmacist, said. “Just coming to make a photo op doesn’t mean very much at all.”

Elliot said there are also concerns about reopening back to in-person visits too soon and the continued shortages in personal protection gear, anti-bacterial and cleaning supplies.

In April, the union leadership put out a “desperate” call for more personal protection gear for staff, citing that some were being asked to reuse N-95 masks for a week. The situation has improved somewhat, but management is still rationing out disposable masks, expecting staff to use them more than once, she said.

“We just want those things we need to get the job done,” Elliot said.

Wilkie said the VA has never fell below two weeks’ worth of reserve supply at any of its hospitals.

“If you are directly involved with patient care, if you are in the COVID wards or in the emergency room, or if you are on the oncology calls, there’s never been a shortage of PPE,” Wilkie said. “Now, if you don’t have contact with patients, then we’re not going to give you three changes of PPE every day.”

To date, 14,292 veterans nationally have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to a release from Wilkie’s office. Among those, some 1,447 are active patients, while as many as 80% are home and beyond the 14-day quarantine period.

Additionally, the department has made 11,864 beds available for all patients and has 1,961 ICU ventilators on hand.

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