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VA Secretary: Early Intervention Kept Veteran COVID-19 Cases Down

Wendy Rigby/Texas Public Radio
The South Texas VA hospital in San Antonio.

From Texas Standard:

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs credits early preventive measures at its 170 medical facilities for keeping more beds available for civilian COVID-19 patients in Texas and nationwide.

“We were the first ones to take dramatic steps,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told Texas Standard in an interview that aired on Thursday. “We stopped elective surgeries. We stopped visitors and family from coming into the hospitals.”

The VA provides health care to 9 million military veterans including half a million Texans.

Although the number of COVID-19 positive cases among military veterans has been rising, the hospitalizations have been lower than in the civilian population.

“We've been lucky in Texas and across the country,” Wilkie said.

In Texas, the VA has opened up its hospitals in Harlingen and San Antonio to civilian patients, in addition to offering bed space at its newest hospital in Garland.

The VA’s nursing homes have been dealing with much lower COVID-19 caseloads than civilian nursing homes because, Wilkie said, unlike civilian facilities, the 134 nursing homes the VA operates have more than one doctor on staff.

“We treat every patient in our nursing homes as an acute-care patient,” Wilkie explained. “We have a different approach than most nursing homes.”

When the coronavirus outbreak began last spring, the VA quickly told veterans to call the agency and stay home. That way, VA staff could call back and quickly assess who needed to come in immediately. That reduced outbreaks in waiting rooms and among staff, Wilkie said.

Wilkie also commented on the murder of Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen who disappeared from Fort Hood in April. Her remains were found earlier this month. A fellow soldier who was considered a suspect killed himself. Before her death, Guillen told family members she had been sexually harassed.

Wilkie told the Standard that staying silent was no longer an option – that veterans and active-duty military should come forward if they know of incidents involving sexual assault or harassment.

“We want people to come forward,” he said. “We have to be on guard so that no family goes through what that family is going through with that soldier from Fort Hood. It's an American tragedy.”

Web story by Terri Langford.

Laura first joined the KUT team in April 2012. She now works for the statewide program Texas Standard as a reporter and producer. Laura came to KUT from the world of television news. She has worn many different hats as an anchor, reporter and producer at TV stations in Austin, Amarillo and Toledo, OH. Laura is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, a triathlete and enjoys travel, film and a good beer. She enjoys spending time with her husband and pets.
Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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