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FEDERAL INSIDER

Survey: Veterans Affairs staffers lack PPE, COVID alerts

By JOE DAVIDSON | The Washington Post | Published: January 18, 2021

With COVID-19 ravaging the nation at record rates, many Department of Veterans Affairs employees say they lack the support needed to fight the disease.

A survey conducted by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents VA workers, indicates most staffers were not informed when colleagues contracted the coronavirus, about half were not told patients had COVID-19 before health-care providers served them, and some workers did not have adequate personal protective equipment to shield against the infection.

VA, the nation's largest health-care system, disputed the survey findings, saying it had performed well in combating COVID.

Here are the toplines from 1,786 responses to the survey that was sent to union members in December:

  • Sixty percent of respondents reported their facility did not alert them when fellow staff members contracted COVID-19.
  • Nearly 50 percent said they were not notified before working with COVID-positive patients.
  • Almost 40 percent reported not receiving adequate PPE.
  • More than 88 percent said they knew of an employee at their facility who had contracted COVID-19.

Susan Carter, director of VA's media relations office in Washington, listed a number of COVID-related accomplishments in an email. She said "union bosses should be praising this success rather than trying to sow division." According to VA:

  • The department's current employee infection rate is less than 1 percent — "much lower than other health-care systems."
  • All VA medical centers have adequate capacity, PPE and supplies to meet current demand.
  • VA has given 203,459 employees and 129,322 veterans at least one dose of a vaccine as of Thursday.
  • As part of VA's COVID response, it has hired more than 72,000 health-care workers since late March.

The picture VA's media relations office paints is not what many employees in the trenches see.

Staffers are not told in advance when working with infected colleagues, said Teri James, a registered VA nurse in Indianapolis and president of the union's local affiliate there. Instead, they learn about it by word-of-mouth. "We are also NOT informed when a patient with whom we have been directly providing care to, turns COVID positive, again we find out from other co-workers," she wrote in an email.

Regarding protective equipment, the record is mixed.

"We have adequate PPE but not always the 'right' type," James wrote. "Management continues to provide staff who work directly with COVID and non-COVID patients NON MEDICAL face masks" when employees are working with patients outside of COVID rooms. "These masks are clearly marked 'not for medical use.'"

When health-care providers enter the room of a COVID-positive patient, they are provided the N95 masks needed for protection, she said.

Despite the additional health-care hiring since March, "there is a shortage of RN staff to provide inpatient care," according to James. "Patient workload is heavy."

Duties for COVID nurses in her facility are much greater than those in other wards, she said. Those additional duties include housekeeping, drawing blood, doing electrocardiograms, escorting patients, meal service, stocking PPEs outside of isolation rooms and other aspects of patient care.

"Management is not following its own COVID-19 Response Plan," according to James. "By not following this Standard Operating Procedure, the medical center has placed multiple staff in harm's way by not limiting the number of services or staff into the COVID isolation areas. Management was given a list of their own violations of the Standard Operating Procedure that they wrote. NO corrections have been made to ensure a safe working condition."

Richard Griffith, an Indianapolis VA Medical Center spokesperson, said he needed specifics, including dates, times, locations and employee names, before responding to James's operating procedure complaints. About her other points, he said that "these allegations are ridiculous."

"The Indianapolis VA Medical Center follows all laws and policies regarding access to patient and employee information, including cases involving COVID-19," he wrote in an email, and "has always followed masking guidelines provided by VA Central Office and the Centers for Disease Control. Additionally, sufficient PPE exists to meet the needs of employees and patients."

At the national level, the union has complained since March that VA's "mismanagement of the pandemic response and lack of transparency put front-line workers, their families and veterans at risk," AFGE President Everett B. Kelley said by phone. "Mishandling of the pandemic has contributed to the spread of the virus throughout the facilities at an alarming rate."

VA reported 191,608 cumulative cases of COVID, including VA patients and employees, as of Sunday evening, according to the department's database. There were 7,909 deaths, including 3,001 among inpatients and 114 employees, which included five staffers in Indianapolis, more than any other VA location except one.

In the midst of pessimistic numbers like these, Kelley finds a ray of optimism — his expectation that VA's management and transparency will improve as soon as President Donald Trump is gone.