Workers in America’s largest health care system have begun to die in the coronavirus pandemic.
As of Monday morning, three employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ sprawling health care system had died due to complications of COVID-19, the agency told Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. Their deaths come as workers at VA hospitals report shortages of protective masks and gloves and a lack of testing for staff.
The VA, which provides care to 9 million veterans at some 170 hospitals, entered the crisis understaffed. The agency’s most recent reports, released in February, show the VA was short 44,000 front-line health workers, including 2,700 doctors and 11,300 nurses and nursing assistants. The result, workers told Reveal, is they were required to come to work sick, potentially spreading the virus among the hospital system’s patients, a majority of whom are over 65 and therefore especially vulnerable. Further increasing the risk, a counselor at one large VA hospital told Reveal that he was concerned that staff were not being tested for the virus – or even having their temperature taken.
The VA denied reports from these front-line workers and said it is following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Meanwhile, the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 260,000 VA workers, filed a complaint with the Department of Labor alleging that the agency violated federal occupational health standards by failing to provide workers with N95 respirators and other necessary protective equipment and put staff in jeopardy by requiring them to come to work, untested, after exposure to the coronavirus.
VA press secretary Christina Noel declined to provide names or job duties of the employees who died, citing privacy concerns, but said they worked at medical centers in Detroit; Indianapolis; and Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The Detroit Free Press has identified one of those who died as Divina Accad, a 72-year-old nurse. “My mom was a hero,” her son, Mark, told the paper. Accad was planning to retire, he said, but before she could, she was hospitalized with pneumonia, a complication of COVID-19.
To date, the federal VA has been providing daily updates only of COVID-19 cases, deaths and tests among its veteran patients. It has not extended the same level of transparency to its workers. As of Monday, the agency reported 2,866 veterans had tested positive and 125 had died, an increase of 22 deaths over the day before.
In response to a request from Reveal, the VA provided a similar breakdown of data for staff – 776 of whom the agency said had tested positive. The largest numbers of cases are in New Orleans, with 82 cases; Montrose, New York, with 40; and East Orange, New Jersey, with 35. They’re followed by Houston; Indianapolis; and Aurora, Colorado, each of which have about two dozen staff who have tested positive.
For a breakdown of the 20 facilities where the most VA staff have tested positive, see the chart below. For a full list, click here.
This story was edited by Esther Kaplan and copy edited by Nikki Frick.