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Wilkie says VA treating its first coronavirus patient

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie testifies before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies during a hearing on Wednesday, March 4, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

By STEVE BEYNON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 4, 2020

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs is caring for a veteran diagnosed with coronavirus, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told House lawmakers on Wednesday.

The patient is being treated at a VA facility in Palo Alto, Calif., and is local to that area, Wilkie told members of the House Appropriations Committee subpanel on military construction, veterans affairs and related agencies during a hearing on the VA’s proposed 2021 budget.

“We train for this, not only for national disasters, we train for epidemics, moving our supply chain in preparation before this became a national issue,” Wilkie said, highlighting his agency has been preparing for the virus since January.

It was unclear Wednesday how many VA facilities are equipped to treat coronavirus. Dr. Richard Stone, executive director of veterans health at the agency, said the VA has “negative airflow" rooms across the country, which allows air to circulate in but not out. He also said the department has more than 1,000 coronavirus testing kits and more of them are on the way. 

The patient is the first in the nation to be treated at the VA for coronavirus. Lawmakers have pressed the agency on how it is preparing for a possible outbreak, amid concerns a significant portion of the treatment could fall on the VA, which has the largest health care network in the nation, with more than 9 million veterans enrolled in the department.

Christina Mandreucci, a VA spokeswoman, said the agency cannot provide any details on specifics regarding the age of the veteran or how he or she contracted the virus due to privacy concerns.

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The patient is the first in the nation to be treated at the VA for coronavirus. Lawmakers have pressed the agency on how it is preparing for a possible outbreak, amid concerns a significant portion of the treatment could fall on the VA, which has the largest health care network in the nation, with more than 9 million veterans enrolled in the department.

Yet, the department has provided few details on how it would combat a possible outbreak. Nearly 50% of VA patients are 65 or older, a demographic that is especially vulnerable to coronavirus, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But officials are asking its patients and the public to take a few precautions, which including staying away from the agency’s nursing homes.

“VA is requesting limited or no visitors and careful monitoring of employees at its nursing homes,” Mandreucci said in a statement. The department is also asking veterans who think they might have contracted coronavirus to contact their local VA facility before showing up.

The number of coronavirus cases in the United States has topped 100 in more than a dozen states, with 11 deaths as a result of the fast-spreading illness.

Last week, Wilkie declined additional resources from Congress to battle the virus, expressing confidence in his agency’s ability to curtail a possible outbreak. 

Beynon.Steven@Stripes.com
Twitter: @StevenBeynon

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