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Miami VA hospital employees are being told to wear, reuse one surgical mask per week

Miami VA Healthcare System (Veterans Health/Flickr)

Healthcare workers at the Miami VA hospital are being told to reuse one surgical mask for a week at a time starting Monday, guidance issued after a federal report on VA hospital preparedness for the novel coronavirus pandemic found the facility had shortages of personal protective equipment.

Administration officials at the Miami VA told employees to check out a surgical mask and return it at the end of each week in order to receive a new one, according to people familiar with operations at the hospital. A spokesperson for the facility confirmed the guidance on Sunday but said it applied only to employees who are not dealing directly with patients suspected of having COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Shane Suzuki, the Miami VA spokesperson, said the guidance was issued out of “an abundance of caution.”

“Staff who need replacement masks are instructed to contact their supervisor,” Suzuki said.

A report by the Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General, released Thursday, examined all VA facilities for their preparedness to combat the highly contagious respiratory disease. In Miami, Bruce W. Carter Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center had “inadequate supplies” of N95 masks, air-purifying respirators, gloves, gowns, as well as face and eye protection, the report said.

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The report also found that the facility could improve upon its staff screening process and had inadequate staffing levels for its police and janitorial services, though it found no issues with staffing for nurses and other practitioners.

Lastly, the VA watchdog hit the Miami facility for having no plans in place to share information with community leaders about its intensive care unit bed capacity or its supply management for personal protective equipment.

Despite the report’s findings, Suzuki said the Miami VA healthcare system “has always had enough essential COVID-related items and supplies to protect patients and staff in accordance with [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines.”

“Additionally, the facility is continually monitoring the status of those items to ensure a robust supply chain,” he said.

Multiple people familiar with operations at the Miami facility have contacted the Miami Herald to express their concerns.

One employee, who said he was not authorized to speak to the media, told the Herald that the healthcare system director, Kalautie JangDhari, “continues to thank everyone for their efforts and what a good job we are doing” and other executives “continue to say we are ready.”

“Staff do not feel ready and lack confidence that VA is working to protect staff,” the employee said.

Suzuki listed numerous steps the Miami VA Healthcare System is taking to mitigate the mounting pandemic, including restricting all visitation except for end-of-life visits and allowing telework for employees who can work from home.

“VA will continue to take all necessary actions to protect our healthcare systems and provide care to patients,” he said.

Last week, a veteran died at the Miami VA medical center from COVID-19. As of Saturday, the VA was tracking 778 veterans who have tested positive for COVID-19, including four in Miami, one of them hospitalized.

Veterans who are concerned they may have symptoms of COVID-19 (Coronavirus), flu or cold are encouraged to contact the Clinical Contact Center at 1-877-741-3400 (toll free).

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© 2020 Miami Herald