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A Department of Veterans Affairs doctor speaks with a patient in this undated file photo.

A Department of Veterans Affairs doctor speaks with a patient in this undated file photo. (Department of Veterans Affairs)

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WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs urged retired doctors Friday to come back to work as the health care system braces for a wave of coronavirus patients.

VA recruiting tweeted to retired VA clinicians and federal health care providers, asking them to consider reemployment with the agency. The department is offering waivers for dual compensation.

“Help us in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic,” the tweet urged.

The office of Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said earlier this week that lawmakers were working on ideas to bolster the VA’s work force. One of their ideas was to bring in retired doctors. Lawmakers and advocates have expressed concerns about the VA’s ability to handle an influx of coronavirus cases because of widespread staff vacancies.

The VA health care system had 44,131 staff vacancies during the first quarter of 2020, according to the agency’s website. The occupations with the most vacancies were nurses, medical support assistants and medical officers.

Gainesville, Fla., had the most nursing vacancies out of any location, and Bay Pines, Fla., had the biggest shortage of medical support assistants.

As of Friday afternoon, the VA was reporting 130 positive cases of the coronavirus across its , up from 83 on Thursday. The New Orleans VA Medical Center reported the most cases, with 42 – up from 25 on Thursday and five on Wednesday. The hospital with the second most patients was New York City, with nine.

The agency also reported another death Friday, which follows the death of a veteran March 14 in Portland, Ore. Details about the second death, such as the veteran’s location, were not publicly shared Friday.

The VA had boosted its testing this week after a slow start. While the agency had administered only 140 tests one week ago, the number of administered tests jumped to 1,192 by Friday.

To slow the surge of patients, the VA prohibited visitors from its medical facilities, canceled elective surgeries and were urging veterans with potential coronavirus symptoms to call before showing up at a hospital or clinic.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie was confident this week, saying VA facilities had plenty of equipment and protective gear and had not yet experienced a surge of coronavirus cases.

In addition to treating veterans, distributing benefits and running veterans cemeteries, the VA has a fourth mission: to support civilian hospitals and provide emergency medical care to all Americans in times of crises.

Three senators wrote to Wilkie on Thursday, asking that he activate that mission. Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said this was a “critical inflection point,” and all federal resources should be activated to prevent the spread of the virus and treat the sick.

Wilkie vowed Wednesday that the VA would serve as backup for the American medical system when called on by President Donald Trump and the Department of Health and Human Services. That moment had not come as of Friday afternoon.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com 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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