Unions seek more protection for VA employees after workers test positive for coronavirus
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 17, 2020
WASHINGTON – Federal unions that represent Department of Veterans Affairs health care workers are calling on VA officials to better protect employees following reports that some have tested positive for the coronavirus.
Late Monday, five unions representing nearly 350,000 VA workers wrote to the agency, urging top-level officials to better prepare and communicate with employees in response to the virus.
“The Trump administration must understand that if they cannot protect health care workers from COVID-19, this country will lose the ability to effectively treat the masses of people in this country that may become infected,” said Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees.
A doctor at the VA hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y., tested positive for the coronavirus and is quarantined at home, Steve Piork, director of the New York Office of Public Affairs, confirmed Tuesday.
The New York Post obtained an internal memo dated March 11 that said a doctor at the Brooklyn VA Medical Center contracted the virus through community spread. Those who came into contact with the employee were being contacted and “the risk of infection is being assessed,” the memo said.
The VA didn’t provide any other information about the doctor, citing privacy concerns.
USA Today reported Tuesday that 11 other VA workers had tested positive for the virus and are all quarantined at home. The staff are in Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., as well as Nevada, New Mexico and Palo Alto, Calif., the newspaper reported.
The National Federation of Federal Employees, along with the American Federation of Government Employees, the National Association of Government Employees, National Nurses United and Service Employees International Union, signed the letter Monday urging VA officials to act in the best interest of medical staff.
They asked the VA to seek counsel from front-line health care workers to create response plans and protocols at VA medical facilities, and for clear communication and testing for staff when there’s a positive case at a VA facility. Any VA employee who is tested positive for coronavirus should be placed on precautionary leave for at least two weeks and maintain pay and other benefits, the unions argued.
They called for more training about how staff could remain safe during the pandemic.
“It is clear from the administration’s utter lack of preparation at the Veterans Health Administration that they have not taken the steps necessary to protect health care workers charged with caring for our nation’s cherished veterans,” Erwin said. “That is a travesty, and it needs to be corrected immediately.”
Lastly, the unions want to ensure there are safe staffing levels at VA medical facilities.
Long before the coronavirus pandemic, veterans, advocates and lawmakers decried the staff shortage at VA facilities. The agency reported last February that there were 49,000 staff vacancies nationwide. Of those, 42,790 were within the VA health care system, with 24,800 in the medical and dental fields. In September, the VA Office of Inspector General said there was a “severe” shortage of nurses and psychiatrists.
In addition to treating veterans, the VA has a “fourth mission”: to provide emergency medical care to all Americans in times of crises. A group of a dozen senators wrote to the VA last week, questioning whether the agency was prepared to take on that mission. It was uncertain Tuesday whether VA officials had responded.