The American Federation of Government Employees filed an OSHA complaint charging both VA and the Bureau of Prisons with violating workers’ health and safety and exacerbating the spread of COVID-19. The Labor Department has since opened an investigation.
VA’s struggles with providing enough PPE to staff was anticipated in a VA Inspector General report released in early April. The report detailed a review conducted by OIG staff from March 19-24 in the early days of VA shifting to a pandemic response footing.
During the review, about two-thirds of VA facilities surveyed reported a lack of adequate supplies, with masks and other PPE being the most reported. Other supplies reported to be in short supply were: swabs, gowns, ventilators, disposable stethoscopes and disposable blood pressure cuffs, sanitizer and testing kits.
Additionally, the report pointed to employee absenteeism as a concern moving forward. Almost half of the facilities reported a rise in absenteeism in the first weeks of the pandemic. The most frequently cited reasons were childcare issues, school closures and planned absences. One facility reported absenteeism of older employees due to concerns with their own safety.
The report also noted that, while nearly all VA facilities were testing for the virus, as of March 19 none had the capacity to process those tests on-site. All of the facilities were reliant on county and state health departments and commercial laboratories to process COVID-19 specimens.
Five facilities were anticipating having processing capabilities on their campus eventually but were waiting for reagents to arrive. One facility estimated that specimen processing time could be reduced from several days to four hours by processing at an on-site laboratory.
As for when the shortages might ease, Stone told The Washington Post, he didn’t know.
“The supply system was responding to FEMA,” said Stone, who served as a combat surgeon and Army deputy surgeon general before becoming VA executive. “I couldn’t tell you when my next delivery was coming in.”
Several days later, a joint statement released by the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA’s parent agency, and the VA advised, “‘In support of our nation’s veterans, FEMA has coordinated shipments of more than 4.3 million various types of respirator masks, 1 million facial/surgical masks, 1.5 million gloves, and 14,000 face shields to VA facilities across the country. An additional 1 million facial/surgical masks are shipping this week.”