Editor’s Note: Robert Wilkie, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, recently visited the VA Medical Center at Mountain Home and submitted a column to the News & Neighbor recapping what he observed.
COVID-19 showed the world that common sense and the ability to innovate can be just as important as advanced technology.
Under President Trump’s leadership, the Department of Veterans Affairs has focused on making sure the right people are in the right jobs to care for our Veterans – a priority that saved lives when the pandemic emerged. During my recent visit to the VA Medical Center at Mountain Home, I saw firsthand how strong leadership mattered to Veterans.
When the virus emerged, staff quickly set up a perimeter to protect their Veteran patients in the main hospital. They shut down all but two entrances, and screened patients for symptoms at both – patients who showed possible symptoms were sent to screening tents for a COVID test.
Staff worked to reduce the number of people in the main hospital by setting up a remote lab at the Carnegie Library. Veterans coming in for routine bloodwork or other testing don’t have to risk entering the main hospital, where they were at higher risk of COVID exposure. Instead, they can have this work done away from the hospital in the converted library that is safely away from the hospital – I saw personally how it took a few minutes by golf cart to reach the library.
Mountain Home staff also used technology to help some Veterans get care without ever having to leave home. Telehealth was on the cusp of becoming a critical way we deliver care, but COVID-19 accelerated its use.
At the start of the year, telehealth was simply a convenience for some Veterans. By June, in the midst of COVID-19, telehealth became critical – more than one-third of the nearly 90,000 medical appointments the facility had with Veterans were done by telehealth, a 500 percent increase.
Perhaps most importantly, Mountain Home shut down access to the nursing home it manages, where some of our most vulnerable Veterans live. A separate staff was assigned to the nursing home, and routine testing of that staff ensured that any of them who tested positive for COVID-19 could be quarantined.
The results are impressive. Nine staff members who serve nursing home patients would test positive for the virus during the pandemic, but there has been no transmission from staff to their nursing home residents. As of late August, no Veterans in the home had tested positive, and there have been no fatalities.
That’s an incredible record in light of what we know today about how carefully we must protect these patients.
The main hospital at Mountain Home has tested more than 10,000 Veterans, of which 337 tested positive. However, the vast majority recovered or are in the process of recovering, and five were lost at the facility.
One fatality is too many, but the numbers show that Mountain Home’s early planning allowed it to keep up with demand for testing and care as the pandemic evolved.
I was also impressed with the effort to accommodate VA staff members who worked tirelessly to keep Veterans safe. Since March, VA staff has been grappling to understand what levels of protective equipment are needed for each medical situation.
To address this, staff at Mountain Home used color coded bags to make it easier for staff to make sure they were protected as they met with Veterans. When the highest level of protection was needed for certain medical procedures, staff knew they could grab a blue bag and be fully protected, and five other color-coded bags were prepared for other situations.
VA’s mission is unlike anything else in federal government – we are charged with caring for those who defend our freedom. Under President Trump, we are more committed to this mission than ever, as Mountain Home VA showed during this time of uncertainty.
Robert Wilkie (@SecWilkie) is the 10th Secretary of Veterans Affairs.