A leaked email obtained by Buzzfeed News revealed that less than 30 minutes after the Veterans Affairs headquarters announced it had adequate equipment, staffers in LA were told to start rationing masks.
According to the news outlet, a top official at the Department of Veterans Affairs on Friday sent an email to all of the agency’s nearly 400,000 employees with a “safety brief” on personal protective equipment, the critical masks, gloves, and supplies that keep workers safe as they care for patients battling the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Lawrence B. Connell, the VA’s chief of staff, told workers that the supply chain for the department, which runs 170 medical centers, had “kicked into full gear” and that officials “remain confident that our current supply levels are adequate.”
Less than 30 minutes later, however, officials from Los Angeles’s sprawling VA hospital system gave staffers the opposite message: Leaders there were preparing to ration supplies.
The situation had grown so dire, according to documents obtained by BuzzFeed News, that medical personnel caring for patients who had tested positive for COVID-19 would receive only a single surgical mask per shift rather than the N95 respirators recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The use of a single surgical mask to treat COVID-19 patients contradicts guidelines from the CDC and underscores the growing anxiety inside the VA, a sprawling network that is supposed to back up America’s hospitals in times of emergency.
From the report:
Two sources told BuzzFeed News, and the chief of staff’s email says that the VA “will not be providing masks to veteran patients who pass our screening to enter our facilities.” Two sources inside the LA facility said COVID-19 patients were not wearing masks inside their rooms.
The VA’s guidance also contradicts rules by the CDC that say surgical masks should normally be “discarded after each patient encounter” and that they do not “provide the wearer with a reliable level of protection from inhaling smaller airborne particles and is not considered respiratory protection.”
This week, nurses at the Brooklyn VA called for the federal government to provide more masks, gowns, and other supplies.
About a week before the VA’s chief of staff told workers it had an adequate supply of equipment, unions that represent employees wrote a letter to Congress warning of serious shortages. They later filed a complaint with the Department of Labor alleging that workers weren’t being provided with appropriate protective gear.
Also in March, the inspector general visited 50 VA facilities across the country and found that more than half the sites didn’t have enough masks and gloves for workers. Leaders in LA reported that they had an adequate supply.
On the ground, physicians, nurses, technicians, and other workers began seeing a squeeze. N95 masks were kept under lock and key, and staffers were required to track them the same way they do for narcotic drugs, according to two people with direct knowledge of the matter.
Ruh, the VA spokesperson, said that the hospital has set up a supply room to track all incoming personal protective equipment and expenditures.
“I was like, ‘Fine, I guess they’re trying to conserve them,’” said one employee. “But then this email comes out and we’re like: ‘Wait, now we only get one?’”T
The physicians, nurses, and other staff members treating these patients are protected only by the surgical masks. Without proper equipment, staffers fear contracting the virus themselves — or passing it to other patients.
“The public needs to know we are not equipped to take care of you guys,” the worker said. “We’re barely equipped to take care of our so-called nation’s heroes.”
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