VA is ready for the COVID-19 pandemic, said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie during a White House press briefing March 18.
“One of the things we do at VA is that we prepare for national emergencies, be they national emergencies or epidemics,” Wilkie said.
VA has four specific missions. Three are Veterans health care, Veterans benefits and running national cemeteries.
“Our fourth mission is to support the federal government in times of natural disasters and pandemics,” he said. Wilkie said VA is the “buttress force” if the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) needs medical professionals for crises.
“We plan for that every day,” he said. “We are gaming out emergency preparedness scenarios and we stand ready when the President needs us to expand our mission.”
Wilkie said VA has stockpiled equipment and its supply chain is stable.
The secretary said VA has tested several hundred Veterans and 44 have tested positive for coronavirus. He said many of those Veterans self-quarantined in their homes. He added that VA works with state laboratories and private companies for testing kits.
The secretary said that Veteran care and protection is an important part of VA’s mission.
“My instructions from the President were very clear,” Wilkie said. “I was to do everything imaginable, as aggressively as possible, to protect the 9.5 million Veterans who are part of the Department of Veterans Affairs.”
The secretary said VA established 19 emergency operations centers across the country last month. Additionally, VA started limiting the number of visitors to facilities to try to stop the virus’ spread. He said VA also was one of the first health care systems that started questioning and testing visitors before allowing access. He added VA also restricted access to its Community Living Centers to help keep Veteran residents safe.
Wilkie said VA took additional steps to minimize the risk of COVID-19 exposure, including cutting back dental surgeries, routine appointments and elective surgeries.
All these actions help protect Veterans, he said.
“These were all parts of the President’s directive to be as aggressive in a public health sense as we could be,” Wilkie said. “I think we have set the pace for the entire country.
“We’ve often said we work the most noble mission in the federal government,” he continued. “Our Veterans have been in the toughest spots in the world. They have been put in conditions that are unimaginable to most Americans and they have responded.”