Veterans Affairs leaders declared that their coronavirus response in recent months has been a “great success,” with active case numbers falling and department hospitals beginning to resume normal operations.
But in testimony before the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie added that department staff are still “routinely putting their lives on the line and sacrificing time with their families to care for veterans, most of whom are older and are therefore more vulnerable to the virus.”
As of Thursday morning, 1,200 patients in the VA health system have died from complications related to the virus. That’s up almost 10 percent from one week ago, and a significant rise from the 512 reported deaths at the start of May.
Nearly 9 percent of patients in VA care who contract the virus have eventually died from the illness, well above the 6 percent death rate for cases among all Americans, according to the latest data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, VA officials have said the mortality data for their patients “cannot be used to compare VA infection or mortality rates with the community because of differences in population risk, test availability, and follow-up.”
Active cases of coronavirus had dropped sharply in recent weeks. As of Thursday morning, the department reported 1,390 patients still not recovered from the illness, a decrease of about 18 percent from a week earlier. At the start of May, that number was nearly 3,000 patients.
Wilkie faced several questions from lawmakers about shortfalls in personal protective equipment for VA staff in recent months, an issue that union officials have said was widespread and dangerous for their members.
But Wilkie and other VA leaders at the hearing insisted that the supply of masks, medical gowns and other supplies has not been a problem.
“Our workforce has had what they needed throughout the entirety of the response,” said Jennifer MacDonald, chief consultant to the VA’s top health official.
Wilkie said on average, the Veterans Health Administration has a minimum of two weeks’ supply on hand of each type of PPE within most facilities. Past austerity measures — including mandating some employees reuse masks — were put in place in April because of concerns about long-term availability and have since been lifted.
At least 31 VA employees have died from coronavirus in the last three months, and nearly 1,500 have contracted the virus.
Lawmakers asked if the department needs more money for the current response effort, or to prepare for the possibility of a resurgence of the virus in the fall.
But officials said they have obligated less than $3 billion of the nearly $20 billion in emergency funds approved by Congress so far. VA Chief Financial Officer Jon Rychalski said department leaders will instead be pushing for more flexibility with the money in coming months, to allow for broader use of the funds.
More than 100,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus in the last three months.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.