Department tells employees not to quarantine until they start feeling sick.
The Veterans Affairs Department is instructing employees who live with an individual who tested positive for COVID-19 to continue coming to work as long as the staffers are not experiencing symptoms themselves, according to VA workers and internal communications.
Employees at some facilities asked for clarification on the policy when they received conflicting information from screeners, and were eventually told by management they should continue working so long as they wore a mask and remained asymptomatic. In some cases, VA employees saw patients after they started to feel sick but before they eventually tested positive themselves. The accounts were confirmed by multiple employees at four different VA facilities around the country.
In internal communications to staff, at least one VA facility in Illinois justified the decision by noting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance allows “critical infrastructure” workers at government facilities to continue working while asymptomatic. The nurses and physicians should only go home once they develop symptoms, the assistant director of the hospital said.
“Employees are like, ‘This makes no sense,’” said one worker in Illinois. “People are getting so frustrated and angry.” The employee suggested health care workers should remain quarantined for 14 days after being exposed to someone at home.
Christina Noel, a VA spokeswoman, stressed that the department was simply following CDC guidelines.
"This is a standard operating procedure at most health care systems throughout the country," Noel said. "VA is no different."
A nurse in Colorado said a doctor at her facility came in to work after her child tested positive for COVID-19. The doctor continued to see patients even after her husband also tested positive. Only when the doctor became very ill did she go home. Employees who test positive do not require a negative test to return to work, the nurse said. Instead, they are told to return whenever they no longer feel sick.
“It’s a cavalier attitude,” the nurse said.
Another employee in Nevada confirmed a similar approach at her facility.
“Even if we are positive, we are told to come in [as long as] we are asymptomatic,” the employee said.
As Government Executive previously reported, the employee noted staff must take personal time when they get sick. If they have no leave saved up they are marked as “absent without leave,” a status that cuts off paychecks and negatively impacts future pay, promotion opportunities and performance metrics. Many agencies throughout government are instead allowing employees who contract COVID-19 to take “weather and safety leave,” a form of paid administrative leave that does not impact the workers’ personal time off.
An employee at another VA facility in Illinois said a colleague in the office Tuesday spoke at a meeting about a relative who was living with him and was currently COVID-19 positive. No one interrupted the meeting to ask the employee to leave or if he had been tested. The same employee said he and his colleagues were dismayed that management is moving forward with an indoor potluck holiday luncheon in December, an invitation for which was reviewed by Government Executive.
“It totally contradicts any common sense,” the employee said of his facility’s policies.
VA is making testing available to employees in some cases but not all, the employees said. They suggested management would rather not know about positive cases as it would then be forced to send the workers home and create the risk of staffing shortages. Employees noted that those who enter their facilities are screened with temperature checks, but they questioned the wisdom of sending those showing signs of the virus through the building—potentially exposing more individuals—to a testing location.
The first Illinois facility, the worker there said, “does not test these folks” with partners, children or other cohabitants who tested positive. “They are told if you aren’t showing symptoms, wear a mask and go to work.”
The employee added she understood the dueling priorities for VA management, but suggested it has come down too heavily on one side.
“I understand it is a balancing act,” she said. “We need employees to take care of veterans, but if we are this careless we won't have anyone at work and some will be dead.”
VA did not respond to a request for comment.
The department is currently experiencing an all-time high in novel coronavirus cases throughout its network. More than 1,100 employees are currently infected with COVID-19. More than 9,100 have tested positive in all—an 18% spike in just the last two weeks—and 70 have died from related symptoms. Noel, the VA spokeswoman, said its employee infection rate was lower than most other health care systems. In the coming months, VA is expected to deliver a COVID-19 vaccine to all of its health care employees who want it.