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Dept. of Veterans Affairs identifies 5 coronavirus patients, puts nursing homes on emergency lockdown

The Department of Veterans Affairs Building. (JeffOnWire/Flickr)
March 10, 2020

The Department of Veterans Affairs has identified its first five potential cases of coronavirus and is working to step up screenings and limit visitors at agency facilities in order to find and stop the virus from spreading.

One patient has already been confirmed by the VA to have the coronavirus, while four more patients have tested positive for the virus but are awaiting further confirmation, USA Today reported. Visitors will not be allowed at any of the VA’s 135 nursing homes, which house more than 8,000 veterans according to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. Wilkie said those nursing facilities are “going into an emergency situation.”

The coronavirus is of particular concern to elderly individuals. Additionally, around half of the veterans in the VA’s care are 65 or older and many have other pre-existing health concerns that could raise their vulnerability to the ongoing coronavirus.

“We will get over this and we will make sure everything is done to protect those who have done so much for our country,” Wilkie said at a veterans conference in Washington on Tuesday.

Wilkie has reportedly indicated one of the patients was being treated at a VA hospital in Palo Alto, California. A second patient was reportedly being treated at the North Las Vegas VA hospital in Nevada and a third was at the VA hospital in New Orleans, Louisiana.

When asked for comment by USA Today reporters, VA spokeswoman Christina Mandreucci said she could not provide specific details about the coronavirus cases, citing privacy concerns. Mandreucci did indicate none of the patients have died.

Patients at VA hospitals and clinics are now being asked some screening questions, including about symptoms, recent travel and potential contact with coronavirus patients. Mandreucci said those found to be at risk of having the disease are then isolated to prevent the disease from spreading.

Some of the screening is done by phone before a scheduled visit. Other patients may elect to undergo their coronavirus screening when they arrive for an appointment, though Mandreucci said: “This may lengthen entry times, so patients are advised to allow for that when arriving for appointments.”

The VA is also administering tests to confirm coronavirus cases among their patients.

Further VA restrictions based on the coronavirus have been administered at the local level. Planned outings have been suspended at some VA nursing homes.

“Such measures are routine and not unusual for this time of the year, and we look forward to reinstating our volunteer visitors and community outings once it is safe to do so,” Mandreucci said.

Other VA facilities, such as those in Phoenix, Arizona; Manchester, New Hampshire and Asheville, North Carolina have required patients and anyone with a runny nose or cough to wear facemasks. Children under 12 are also not allowed at the VA medical centers in Tacoma and Seattle, Washington, the state where many of the coronavirus deaths in the U.S. have occurred.

Joe Chenelly, executive director of American Veterans (AMVETS) has expressed concern that the VA is not providing vets with enough information about how they are handling the coronavirus.

Unfortunately, the AMVETS members I’m speaking with haven’t heard about those measures,” Chenelly told USA Today. “They don’t know if they can or should be tested at VA medical centers or outpatient facilities.”

The virus has also become a concern for active military personnel. The U.S. Navy recently suspended guest attendance at boot camp graduations and the U.S. Army has suspended travel in and out of Italy and South Korea, two countries heavily affected by the coronavirus outbreak.