Sharon Tapp, who worked as a nurse case manager at the DC VAMC, spent 117 days at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. A “Living Celebration of Life” welcome home (with physical distancing) parade celebrated her hospital discharge. Photo from Aug. 10, 2020, VAntage Point blog.

WASHINGTON — From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, VA staff have complained about shortages of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect against the virus.

That hasn’t changed a year into the healthcare crisis, according to a survey by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents 265,000 VA employees. The survey also showed that VA employees were not always informed when their colleagues had tested positive for COVID-19, and that some healthcare workers were not told that a patient was positive for the virus prior to treating them. 

As of January 21, VA had experienced just under 200,000 COVID-19 cases. Employees accounted for about 16,000 of those. Of the 8,221 veteran death, 3,087 of them were VA inpatients and 114 were VA employees.

Of the more than 1,700 VA employees surveyed by AFGE, 60% reported that facilities did not alert them when fellow staff members tested positive, and nearly 50% said they were not notified before working with COVID-positive patients. Most, 88%, said they knew of an employee at their facility that had contracted COVID-19, and nearly 40% continued to report not having received adequate PPE.

AFGE points to a lack of a standardized response across VA as one of the problems.

“By refusing to enact safety measures that are standard across all VAs, including the ability for employees to have access to testing, telework, and the ability to quarantine, the virus will continue to spread, infect, and possibly kill workers and veterans,” declared Alma Lee, president of AFGE’s National VA Council. “VA must take accountability for its mishandling of this crisis.” 

One of VA’s regular talking points during the pandemic is the employee infection rate of less than 1%. A study released by The Lancet in September puts the rate among U.S. healthcare workers in general at around 1.8%. 

Still, the anecdotes from VA staff across the country describe facilities where staff safety is not always prioritized. 

“Management recently closed our COVID-19 and acute care units, displacing nearly 400 veterans,” said AFGE Local 1631 Executive Vice President Jessica Fee, who represents employees at the Chillicothe, OH, VAMC. “The closure of these units resulted in an outbreak among staff and veterans due to management’s inability to separate infected patients from other veterans in the psychiatric and detox units. Dozens of staff members have had to quarantine following exposure, leaving veterans with reduced access to vital services.”

“We continue to have an enormous problem with COVID,” said Barb Galle, president of AFGE Local 3669 in Minneapolis, during a December press call. “We have N95 masks being withheld from staff and one 65-year-old nurse being told she had to fill out a safety form in order to receive a mask. We currently have 322 cumulative staff that have tested positive, but the agency won’t listen to our input.”

Reports of PPE shortages at VA facilities have been circulating since the beginning of the pandemic, with VA regularly refuting them. Recent information confirms that the reports, at least during the early months of the outbreak, were true, however, and that VA’s PPE supply chain had been deeply impacted, resulting in strict rationing of equipment in some facilities. 

The relationship between the union and VA has eroded over the past few years, with that erosion accelerating in recent months when a federal panel imposed a new contract on AFGE that sided almost entirely with VA. In AFGE’s view, this dismissal of VA employees’ voices in that arena has trickled down to impact how employee safety has been treated at facilities during the pandemic. 

 “The responses from our VA members confirm what we have been saying since the start of this pandemic—because of VA leadership’s mismanagement and outright refusal to collaborate with employee representatives, this virus has continued to spread amongst veterans and workers across the country at an alarming rate,” said AFGE National President Everett Kelley. “Enough lives have been lost. We look forward to returning to our seat at the table and working collectively with new VA leadership to develop a comprehensive plan that commits to ensuring worker and veteran safety, under the [new] Biden administration.”