(Stars and Stripes)

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WASHINGTON – After weeks of supply shortages and staffing concerns, the Department of Veterans Affairs said it has obtained millions of respiratory masks and hired thousands of employees in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Coronavirus deaths among VA patients neared 1,000 on Friday, up 13% since Monday. More than 11,800 VA patients have tested positive for the virus, but the number of people still sick decreased by 24% since Monday to slightly more than 2,000.

Initially, the VA struggled with its supply of masks and ordered hospitals to ration their supplies. VA nurses gathered nationwide in April to protest the lack of personal protective equipment.

On April 30, the VA purchased 4.5 million masks, which the department bought with the help of New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu. Dean Kamen, an engineer who invented the Segway, has helped facilitate multiple shipments of medical-grade masks to New Hampshire, his home state. This week, South Korea sent 500,000 masks to the VA in honor of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War.

The VA also reported this week that it had boosted staffing. The department was facing a shortage of health care workers before the pandemic. There were more than 49,000 vacancies across the VA system during the first quarter of 2020, and more than 44,000 of those were in the VA health care system

From March 29 to April 28, the department hired 9,338 employees, including 2,147 registered nurses. The department looked to boost hiring in the early weeks of the pandemic, putting the call out for nurses, respiratory therapists and other health care professionals to join VA facilities across the country. Many of the jobs are temporary.

The VA said it was expecting thousands of workers to join the VA in in May.

While the department is growing its medical staff, it said front-line employees would not be provided hazard pay. In a statement to ABC News, VA press secretary Christina Noel said, “Hazard pay is to compensate employees when risks cannot be reasonably mitigated and employees cannot be safely protected, and that is the opposite of the current environment at VA.”

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents thousands of VA workers, said the decision was a “slap in the face” to VA workers. Though there are enough masks now, that wasn’t the case for some of the hardest weeks of the pandemic, the union said.

As of Friday, 30 VA employees had died of the virus, up from 26 on Monday. Six of those deaths had occurred in New Jersey, three in Indianapolis and three in Reno, Nev. More than 2,000 employees had contracted the virus by the end of April and thousands more were under quarantine because of exposure.

“All front-line employees who have been or could have been exposed to Covid-19 while on the job and were not provided the proper protective equipment — at any point during this pandemic — deserve hazard pay,” the federation’s president, Everett Kelley, said in a statement.

A $3 trillion stimulus bill introduced by House Democrats on Tuesday would establish a $200 billion “Heroes Fund” to provide hazard pay to essential workers, including VA medical staff. The legislation was likely to pass the Democrat-controlled House but faces barriers in the Senate.

The department was given billions of dollars from Congress in March to boost supplies and hiring, among other things. On Thursday, Republican and Democratic leaders of the Veterans Affairs committees called on the Government Accountability Office to track how that money is being spent.

“A severe disruption to global medical supply chains coupled with historic demand spikes has wreaked havoc on VA’s already strained procurement and logistics operations,” the lawmakers wrote to the watchdog agency. “The unique and immediate challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic warrant extraordinary focus by GAO.” Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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