Getting Veterans COVID-19 vaccinations high priority, says SecVA
Continuing to get COVID-19 vaccinations for Veterans – especially those in rural and highly rural areas – is a high priority, VA Secretary Denis McDonough told reporters Feb. 23.
More than 1 million Veterans have at least one vaccine and 400,000 received both doses, McDonough said, with numbers of shots in arms climbing daily.
Veterans are generally receiving the COVID vaccine quickly after facilities receive doses.
“In many facilities, from arrival of dosages to having provided all those dosages in arms is about three to four days in some and not more than seven in any facility,” McDonough said.
The secretary has witnessed the urgency by VA staff to get Veterans the COVID-19 vaccine.
“People have taken really seriously the assignment to get these shots in arms,” he said.
To reach some Veterans, VA has found new and creative ways to deliver shots in arms. Veterans in rural Kalispell, Montana, received COVID-19 vaccines following an airplane delivery from Fort Harrison near Helena into Glacier Park International Airport Feb. 3. A private charter delivered 400 Moderna vaccines for high-risk Veterans. The area is one of the more remote parts of Montana, about 200 miles from Fort Harrison. Veterans also receive shots through mobile shot clinics, like one recently in Nebraska.
The secretary said Veterans will see continued vaccinations at VA facilities. As the vaccination program moves forward in the months to come, Veterans will see VA take that capacity on the road, too. And, VA will partner with federal agencies to further expand the number of vaccinators to get Veterans their shots.
McDonough said Veterans in rural and highly rural communities not receiving the vaccine is a concern. About 4.7 million Veterans live in rural and highly rural areas. Of those, about 2.7 million use VA health care. Rural Veterans enroll in VA health care at about a 58% rate, significantly higher than the 37-percent enrollment rate of urban Veterans.
Urban areas have at least 30% of the population residing in an urbanized area as defined by the Census Bureau. Rural areas have less people than urban areas, while highly rural areas have sparse population. Highly rural areas have less than 10% of the working population that commutes to any community larger than an urbanized cluster. That is typically a town of no more than 2,500 people.
A Veteran receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a Cottonwood Community Based Outpatient Clinic event in Arizona.
Compared to urban areas, rural communities tend to have higher poverty rates. They also have more elderly residents, residents with poorer health and fewer physician practices, hospitals, and other health delivery resources. Rural Veterans enrolled in VA’s health care system are also significantly older. About 55% are over the age of 65.
Other COVID assistance for Veterans
Veterans are also receiving debt relief from VA, McDonough said. VA will continue suspension of collection on all Veteran benefit overpayments and medical copayment debts incurred after April 1, 2020. VA is suspending this debt collection to provide Veterans continued financial relief due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The President has given us a clear mission to do everything we can to get to and through this pandemic,” McDonough said. “And providing that economic relief is a big part of that.”
The secretary said about 259,000 VA clinicians received at least the first vaccine and about 220,000 received both doses. That allows health care workers to provide continuing care to Veterans.
As secretary, McDonough said he wants to empower VA staff to be “innovative and creative” in finding ways to serve Veterans. He said Veterans deserve VA staff to have clear processes and procedures to provide care. In his short time as secretary, he’s been impressed with VA staff.
“I think the people are really talented people,” he said.