Those lessons have resulted in VA’s current plan for dealing with a natural disaster in a COVID-19 environment—a living document that is regularly being updated, Sitterly explained. It focuses on three things: how to manage facilities and assets, reporting requirements and how to shelter in place in a COVID-19 environment.
VA’s plan works under the assumption that VA facilities will still be operating under COVID-19 protocols. At the same time, the facilities will be asked to bring in patients from other long-term care facilities.
“There’s critical considerations where we’ll have testing when we’re bringing people into facilities,” Sitterly said.
In addition to a working plan, VA also has the personnel to allow for multiple disasters at once, Sitterly said. “One of our successes [during the pandemic has been] our ability to quickly onboard human capital. Within five weeks, we onboarded about 10,000 people. That’s unprecedented. Our personal numbers are good.”
While supply chains remain precarious around the world, especially when it comes to personal protective equipment, VA’s emergency supply of medicine remains robust, officials said.
In October 2018, a VA Inspector General found that VA’s Emergency Cache Program had failed to keep its emergency store of supplies mission-ready. An audit found missing, expired or excess drugs at all 141 caches. Investigators also found that VA managers were not aware of the extent of the inventory problems, compromising the caches’ usefulness.
According to VA, that problem no longer exists, and all seven of the recommendations made in the IG report have been addressed.
Asked if VA’s ability to handle multiple disasters at once had ever been tested, Sitterly assured legislators that it had.
“We have multiple ways that we train and we test and stress our systems. We’ve done tabletops. But the real stressor is the natural disasters themselves,” he explained. “While we’re dealing with COVID-19, we’re also tracking 31 locations where we have protests going on. We’ve evacuated locations. We’re watching the hurricane as it comes in. We’ve done wildfires. At some point with enough real-world situations the system will break, but I’m confident in our plan. The real test will be the magnitude of the emergency and the disaster.”