WASHINGTON—Hurricane season officially began on June 1, and VA officials were asked by legislators to reassure the American public that the department was capable of dealing with another natural disaster while remaining on a pandemic footing. VA leaders expressed confidence that the agency’s disaster training would be up to the task but noted that the real test will not come until such a disaster hits.

VA’s “fourth mission,” after providing healthcare, benefits, and managing the nation’s military cemeteries, is to act as a backstop for a region’s healthcare system if it’s strained by a disaster. Currently the department is doing so in a number of regions due to COVID-19.

“An extreme weather event can, and probably will, occur before the pandemic is over,” Rep. Julia Brownley (D-CA) told VA officials during an online hearing of the House VA Subcommittee on Health last month. “We’ve already seen how the pandemic upended medical supply chain reliability around the world, overwhelmed FEMA’s existing resources and stressed states’ access to supplies from HHS. The administration’s ability to handle both a worldwide public health emergency and seasonal hazards is in question.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted higher-than-normal hurricane activity this season, and early indicators show that prediction to be accurate. As of June 23, there had already been four storms large enough to be given names having arisen in the Atlantic, with two tropical storms forming before the start of the season.

Also, experts are predicting a higher-than-normal chance of wildfires in the Pacific Northwest and Northern California this summer due to low precipitation.

“VA’s emergency management and disaster response plans include one specifically dealing with hurricanes during a pandemic,” explained Daniel Sitterly, VA’s assistant secretary for Human Resource and Administration/Operations. “This plan incorporates practices, protocols and procedures developed during the COVID-19 response.”

“Most natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes are short in event duration and long in recovery,” Sitterly added. “The COVID-19 pandemic has been a long duration event, and we have learned many lessons and adjusted our response to COVID-19 and other disasters as well.”

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