Employees were being denied tests as recently as Friday and a dozen workers said widespread testing is not available for staff.
Veterans Affairs Department employees across the country are disputing a claim VA leadership made to Congress on Thursday that any employee who wants a COVID-19 test—for any reason—could get one.
Government Executive heard from employees at a dozen VA facilities in as many states who said the department was not offering widespread testing for the disease related to the novel coronavirus. In most cases, they said, only symptomatic workers could receive a test. That reality falls in sharp contrast to the situation described by VA’s top leaders.
“We also have testing available for our employees,” Jennifer MacDonald, VA’s chief consultant to the deputy undersecretary for health, said at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Thursday. “Any employee who is symptomatic, who is concerned they have been exposed or requests a test is able to receive that.”
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie added VA was no longer experiencing any shortage of testing. “We do have an adequate testing at this point,” he said.
Employees, however, said their experience runs counter to those claims.
“That is absolutely not a true statement at my facility,” said one Ohio-based VA nurse. “If you’re symptomatic, that’s the only way [to get a test].”
A VA nurse in Indianapolis reached out to her facility on Friday after being contacted by Government Executive to see if she could get a test. The employee health clinic there told the nurse they “knew nothing about any employees receiving a COVID test” and referred her to the employee COVID area, where she was again denied a test.
A nurse in Denver laughed upon being asked if Wilkie and MacDonald’s statements were accurate. She said a large proportion of the nurses in her facility would have jumped at the opportunity to receive tests from the department, but such an offer was never made. The nurse noted a colleague, who had tested positive for COVID-19 three consecutive times, was recently told to return to work after going home to quarantine. The nurse requested a fourth test to ensure the virus had left her system, but was denied by the facility.
An employee at the Lyons VA Medical Center in New Jersey said even the workers who screen colleagues before entering are not able to get tests.
“No way,” the employee said. “Our team begged for them. We were told 'no, not unless you have all the symptoms.' ”
In a mid-May email shared with Government Executive, the director of the VA medical center in Bay Pines, Florida, said a previous plan to conduct testing of staff was "being reevaluated." A subsequent email this week said the facility would offer optional testing only to employees in the medical intensive care unit "who work with COVID positive veterans daily."
Germaine Clarno, a VA employee in Hines, Illinois, and president of the American Federation of Government Employees chapter that represents the workforce there, also said tests were only available for certain employees. She knew of a social worker, for example, who requested a test in recent days but was told her service line was not approved for testing.
“It depends where you work in the hospital,” Clarno said.
VA did not respond to a request for comment to explain the discrepancy between the claims from leadership and the reports from employees. Two VA workers did say their facilities had expanded access to antibody testing for staff, but this would not offer the same benefit as the viral test that informs individuals if they have a current infection. About 1,500 VA employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and 32 have died from related symptoms.
Wilkie said that more than 145 VA facilities have rapid testing available and many of those sites have multiple types of tests at their disposal. He added VA is “proactively working on pieces more difficult in the global supply chain” that could cause roadblocks in expanding testing, such as access to nasal swabs and the ability to transport samples to processing sites.
The secretary also said VA would deploy lessons learned from the initial surge of cases in its health care network to ensure an adequate supply of personal protective equipment. VA employees previously voiced significant concerns about the lack of access to supplies such as masks, face shields and gowns.
“The provision we made for independent supply chain was disrupted,” due to the national emergency, Wilkie said. “I’m looking at ways to prevent that from happening again in the event this thing boomerangs back on us in the fall.”
The secretary explained that VA is already stockpiling equipment for a potential second wave and is working with the private sector to ensure a smoother supply chain.
“We are marshaling resources and storing them up at a greater pace than we had back in February,” WIlkie said. “I have been talking to CEOs of large corporations to make sure as the national emergency subsides, we start getting large numbers of equipment from them. Everything from masks to gowns. So that is the plan.”
VA employees, meanwhile, said the immediate crisis has not yet been resolved. They have more personal protective equipment than they did a month ago, but still lack the access they would have during a non-emergency. The Ohio nurse said her VA facility provides one N95 respirator mask every 24 hours.
“If we had enough,” the nurse said, “we’d get a new mask every time we go into a new room.”