Insufficient Safety Equipment Would Also Put Veterans in Danger
Nurses warn of needless sickness and death if Veterans Affairs hospitals reopen without enough personal protective equipment.
The VA employs 342,000 workers, more than a fifth of the government’s civilian workforce. If nurses and other healthcare workers contract COVID-19, the coronavirus will spread to others, including veterans.
“I’m not confident that they will open up in a manner that is safe and strategically planned,” said Yvonne Renee Evans, nurse coordinator for surgical /podiatry clinics at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit. She has COVID-19.
Evans and other nurses affiliated with the American Federation of Government Employees are also speaking for nurses without a union. VA management has ignored her pleas for help and has put co-workers and VA patients at risk of contracting COVID-19.
White House Protests
Twice so far other nurses organizations gathered outside the Trump White House to read the names of dead colleagues. The second time they left behind 80 pairs of pristine white shoes, a silent yet powerful reminder of the unnecessary brutality of the Trump administration mishandling of the pandemic.
The reopening was ordered by Robert Wilkie, Trump’s VA secretary, whose devotion to the welfare of veterans and VA healthcare professionals must be considered suspect. He is an ardent defender of the Confederacy and its traitorous president, Jefferson Davis. During his Senate confirmation hearing, he withheld information about his racist ties and public statements.
It’s no surprise, then, that Wilkie would ignore established public health practices and cavalierly put the lives of nurses and other VA employees at risk.
Listen to the Nurses
Nurse Evans believes she contracted COVID-19 on the job. Evans said she has little to no confidence in the Trump appointee’s plans to resume regular operations in a strategic or intelligent way.
Wilkie—a former aide to fired Defense Secretary James Mattis—announced on May 4 that VA facilities “that have not been hard hit” by the pandemic would re-open.
VA administrators are already making “huge mistakes” attempting to move patients into COVID-19 “hot zones,” said Barbara Galle, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3669. Her local is part of the union’s District 8 which represents federal employees in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Galle’s analysis illustrates the importance of nurses and other workers belonging unions that stand up for their concerns. Managers can easily brush aside the concerns of individuals, even threatening them with firing if they don’t go along with dangerous practices.
Galle, an intensive-care registered nurse, said she was comfortable with conditions at two Minneapolis VA facilities where her members work. “They work with AFGE and they’ve had no problems this entire time.”(
But for VA nurses and others in the rest of District 8, Galle said the VA is already making huge mistakes.
Not until mid-March did the VA began restricting visits to its facilities and curtailing elective surgeries and non-medical procedures. That was when COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic.
The first confirmed COVID-19 case in America was reported Jan. 31. It was late November when the Trump administration was warned about a highly infectious illness spreading fast in Wuhan, China. Trump did nothing for two months and has never taken comprehensive action.
Everett Kelley, the AFGE national president, said the VA is simply not ready to resume normal operations. He said administrators continue to tune out the concerns of frontline workers. “Just think about the fact that no one would believe the stories” about inadequate personal protection “had it not been for the press pushing and telling how this is wrong.”
“Finally, the VA admitted we don’t have enough PPE,” Kelley said. “I’m not confident that they will open up in a safe manner unless they disregard [their pattern] of just not listening to the unions and to the workers.”
Safety Masks Diverted
Last month, Richard Stone, the executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, admitted that he had to impose “austerity” measures after 5 million safety masks intended for VA staffers were diverted into the nation’s reserve stockpile.
Galle, the Minneapolis nursing leader, said: “Not having enough masks is unprecedented.”
“Nurses don’t practice wearing one mask for an entire shift — no nurse will tell you that’s a safe practice. You go in one patient’s room, you take off that mask before you enter another patient’s room.” Otherwise, the mask itself can spread the virus.
“Trump needs to stop and think — if that was his family member in there, how would he want that handled,” she asked. Her question assumes Trump is capable of given serious thought to anyone but himself.
Informed concern about the dangers of the VA move to reopen were also articulated by David Pitts, a certified critical-care nurse and the executive vice president of AFGE Local 1410 at Walter Reed National Military Center in Bethesda, Md. He’s also a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician with more than 30 years of experience in emergency medicine, intensive care and interventional cardiology/radiology.
Pitts argues against any top-down plan to resume normal VA operations.
“As far as reopening strategically we’ve yet to show we’ve strategically done anything to any great extent… we need to be more collaborative,” he said.
Collaboration by the unions and VA hospitals management is vital, Pitts said, “because this is an all-encompassing — not a ‘my way or the highway’ —type thing.
“We know that the more (patients) that you see, the more that you’re exposed, the more likely that you’re going to come in contact with the disease process. The floodgates are going to open — and it’s being cognizant of how we manage that — to limit the liability to ourselves, our patients and our agencies.”
VA Management’s Callousness
Evans, the nurse who got the virus, says “upper-level supervisors” ignored her requests — based on Centers for Disease Control recommendations — to notify and quarantine co-workers she may have infected.
“They stated that if a person doesn’t have signs or symptoms they can continue [to work] or need to wear a mask,” Evans said.
The knowledge of this RN with more than three decades of on-the-job experience was ignored by nonmedical staff who manage the facility where she works. They told Evans she could report back to work without being retested for COVID-19. That is a frightening prospect other hospital staffers around the nation had been warning about for weeks.
Testing Not Required
“I was instructed that after my 14-day quarantine was over and I no longer had a temperature than I could report back to work,” Evans said. “I was not required to retest. I had retested myself because I didn’t feel right.”
Not only did Evans test positive — she had an X-ray showing viral pneumonia.
“I’m still off because of that,” Evans said. “I want to go back to work. I want to be with my co-workers and I want to help serve my vets because I love my vets unconditionally. They served this country for me and I want to serve them. My biggest complaint is people are not having to be tested to return back to work. It is not mandated that I be tested to go back to work — but I’m around patients and I’m going to make sure I don’t expose anyone to anything.”
The Trump administration consistently has dismissed the severity of the pandemic. A Trump tweet on Feb. 24 asserted, “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA.” On May 9, Trump said the coronavirus will “go away without a vaccine.”
That is, of course, nonsense lacking any factual basis. But Trump often ignores or demonizes facts he doesn’t like and his tweets and comments shop he doesn’t understand science at even a high school level.
Kelley, the AFGE national president, said, “We’ve got to make sure that when the economy is reopened, we have procedures in place to protect the public and the people which are the frontline people serving the public… That means there’s going to have to be some coming together or negotiation with the management and the union to ensure that everyone is protected before this economy is reopened.”
Earlier this month, U.S. military jets flew over cities across the country in honor nurses and other essential workers on the front lines.
Galle said she knows a better way to spend taxpayer money. “That was nice — but why couldn’t they drop masks when they were flying overhead?”
Featured image: Protest in Salem, Va.