Department of Veterans Affairs health workers exposed to COVID-19 are being forced to come to work without being tested for the virus – so long as they are not showing symptoms – potentially turning themselves into unwitting carriers of the disease who could spread it among millions of elderly and vulnerable patients.

“A lot of these are old guys, 90 years or older, and are immunocompromised,” said Mindy Challoner, an audiologist and shop steward at the VA’s outpatient clinic in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. “They’re coming in for chemo. We are not doing enough to protect them.”

President Donald Trump proclaimed his support for “our amazing veterans” during his daily coronavirus briefing Sunday, saying, “We’re being very protective of our veterans.” However, nurses, social workers and hospital staff across the VA system told Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting they lacked protective gear and were unable to get tested when they got sick or were exposed to a patient who tested positive.

The VA operates the largest integrated health care system in the country, serving more than 9 million patients annually across more than 170 hospitals and hundreds of clinics. About half of its patients are over 65 and many have pre-existing conditions related to their service in war, making them particularly vulnerable to the disease.

The agency says it is rigorously following guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how to protect patients and staff from COVID-19. It says, for example, that it has enough masks and that staff can get tested. But the experiences of VA staff and patients often do not match official policy out of Washington.

At the Wisconsin Rapids VA, Challoner said, the nurse asking patients screening questions for COVID-19 before they were allowed to enter the clinic for scheduled appointments this morning did not have a mask until the union provided one a half-hour into her shift. 

In Houston, a VA employee experiencing a mild fever, chills, a headache and a loss of sense of smell said she had to drive 40 miles to get tested on her own this morning because no tests were available on the VA campus. 

The reports disturbed Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “I find it incredulous,” he said. “There may be unwitting communication of the virus.” 

As of this morning, the VA had confirmed 204 cases of COVID-19 among its patients and two deaths. Two workers at the VA hospital in Brooklyn, New York, also have tested positive for COVID-19, the Military Times reported this afternoon.

As the VA confronts the new coronavirus, it is already spread thin. The agency entered the COVID-19 pandemic understaffed, short 44,000 front-line health care workers, including 2,700 doctors and 11,300 nurses and nursing assistants. Takano told Reveal that the most recent data he’d reviewed showed 13% of emergency manager positions were vacant.

In an email, VA press secretary Christina Mandreucci dismissed reports of problems and said the agency had enough tests and protective gear.

As for concerns that untested VA workers could be exposing their patients, she said the department followed CDC guidelines. “If symptoms develop,” she said, “the health care professional is tested, treated and quarantined.”

While health officials generally recommend that people who are exposed to someone with COVID-19 self-quarantine for 14 days, Mandreucci referred to CDC guidelines for health workers, which prioritize the continued delivery of care. And so, Mandreucci said, VA policy is that staff should continue to work if they had been “exposed to a COVID-19 patient as long as they are asymptomatic, using personal protective equipment and have been cleared to work by their occupational health department.”

In his Sunday briefing, Trump said his administration is “working on certain hospitals, where we may be doing some work in Louisiana, in particular, and some other states, veterans hospitals.”

In an email, Mandreucci declined to clarify the president’s remarks. 

The VA hospital in New Orleans has reported more cases than any in the nation, 65 as of today, including 20 in home quarantine, 44 inpatient in the VA hospital and one pending. 

On Wednesday, Coretta Gray went to the New Orleans VA for a three-hour infusion therapy for rheumatoid arthritis. The 41-year-old Air Force veteran sat in a ward with about 25 other patients, separated by curtains, all hooked up to intravenous drips. Most of the veterans were much older than she, and many were there for chemotherapy.

Gray said none of the nurses had been issued masks, though one had brought her own from home. Gloves were in short supply.

“All the nurses were great,” she said. “But they need protection for our protection. I want someone to raise the alarm. They need more than the same old, same old – ‘we’ll get you the stuff.’ ” 

Aaron Glantz can be reached at aglantz@revealnews.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Aaron_Glantz.

Aaron Glantz was a senior reporter at Reveal. He is the author of "Homewreckers: How a Gang of Wall Street Kingpins, Hedge Fund Magnates, Crooked Banks, and Vulture Capitalists Suckered Millions Out of Their Homes and Demolished the American Dream." Glantz produces journalism with impact. His work has sparked more than a dozen congressional hearings, numerous laws and criminal probes by the Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, Pentagon and Federal Trade Commission. A two-time Peabody Award winner, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, multiple Emmy Award nominee and former John S. Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University, Glantz has had his work has appear in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, NBC Nightly News, Good Morning America and PBS NewsHour. His previous books include "The War Comes Home" and "How America Lost Iraq."