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The Department of Veterans Affairs runs the largest health care network in the country. Nine million vets are enrolled in VA health care. And recently, the VA announced it would treat all veterans who need help during this crisis. But VA health workers have been raising the alarm that they need help. Seven VA staff have died from the virus. And NPR has seen internal emails telling VA staff to use the same surgical mask for up to a week. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Since the outbreak began, unions for VA workers have been warning about shortages of protective gear and insufficient staffing. Sharon Lake is a union president at the Lyons VA in New Jersey. She says caring for vets is a point of pride for these staff.
SHARON LAKE: They took on the job of taking care of the veterans, and they want to do their job. But supplies are needed.
LAWRENCE: Lake says many staff who are transporting coronavirus patients or feeding them don't feel safe. She says nurses are stuck doing many extra tasks because other staff don't have protective gear to enter COVID wards. A VA spokesperson said all VA facilities are equipped with essential items and supplies to handle coronavirus cases, and all VA employees have the appropriate personal protective equipment as per CDC guidelines. But NPR has seen internal emails telling some non-intensive care staff to now use the same surgical mask for a week. That may now be in line with the latest CDC guidelines, but just a month ago, that mask would have been single-use only.
DAVID SHULKIN: I'm really concerned about what I'm seeing in the VA.
LAWRENCE: Former VA secretary David Shulkin served in the Trump and Obama administrations. He says too many VA staff are getting infected.
SHULKIN: Seven VA workers now dead from COVID-19 and over 1,100 who are infected, and that's alarmingly high.
LAWRENCE: Shulkin points to a VA inspector general's report based on surprise inspections last month that found many facilities did not have enough masks and protective gear in reserve. Also, VA is relying heavily on testing outside its system, which sets the bar high for staff who want to get tested. VA has tens of thousands of job vacancies in its health care system, which puts even more pressure on the staff, says Shulkin.
SHULKIN: Staff have to feel safe and protected if they're going to be able to take care of the veterans. And when staff are getting sick at this number, that is going to put additional stress on those who do come to work. And when people are overworked and overstressed, they tend to make mistakes.
LAWRENCE: It may just be that VA is feeling the same shortages of staff and masks as the rest of the country, but Sharon Lake at the Lyons VA in New Jersey says she thinks the nation's largest health care system can do better.
LAKE: Because our vets took care of us, and we will take care of our vets. And what I'm asking management is to make sure they take care of the people that take care of the veterans.
LAWRENCE: VA facilities also serve as a backup health care system during national emergencies. Veterans hospitals are taking in extra civilian patients at several hotspots around the country. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.
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