“We’ve been in hundreds of nursing homes around the nation continuing to provide that service,” Stone said. “Today we’re in 43 state veterans homes, some with pretty high profile problems with infections and deaths. We have been welcomed as experts in geriatric care and infection control.”
The infection rate among healthcare workers worldwide and especially in the United States, remains high. According to the CDC, as of June 4, more than 70,000 U.S. healthcare workers had tested positive, and more than 600 had died. The agency admitted that this is almost certainly a gross underestimate, since only 21% of reports include data noting whether an individual is a healthcare worker.
Rates of infection have varied widely, but seem to coincide broadly with the regional infection rate. In early May, antibody testing showed a 12% infection rate for healthcare workers in New York City compared to 20% among the general public, which was touted as a success by New York’s governor.
VA, on the other hand, registered a 0.8% infection rate nationwide as of mid-June. That percentage represents slightly more than 1,800 staff infections and 36 deaths as of June 19. VA cited system-wide use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and the continual ramping up of testing as tests became more widely available as keys to its success.
“To date we have prioritized our testing for those veterans and employees with symptoms and any employee that experiences a high risk of exposure, where we have identified any outbreak in the system and we want to do full contact tracing of that situation,” Mole told legislators at the hearing. “Now that we have expanded services, doing testing on individuals coming in for procedures. Our goal is testing everyone.”
Mole would not commit, however, on when universal testing at VA facilities will be possible.
“We have a good supply of tests, but we’re suffering from what every institution in the U.S. is suffering from in that we’re missing a key component to offer the whole package,” he explained.
Previously that key component has been swabs used to take samples. Currently the missing component is the transport media used to send tests to the lab.
“VA has invested in additional manufacturing level 3-D printers to push production of swabs,” added Stone. “This is not about testing capacity. It is about some very simple things that have hung us up in this process.”
Stone revealed that, due to these shortages of components, VA’s laboratory testing of COVID-19 was underutilized by about 50%.
“You’re telling me as a consequence of VA’s inability to procure glorified Q-tips, we are not testing as many people as we could,” exclaimed Rep. Max Rose (D-NY).
“Congressman, that is exactly what I’m saying,” Stone replied.