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National Secretary: Utah VA Health Care ‘Prepared’ For Possible COVID-19 Rebound

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – COVID-19 has taken a terrible toll on Utah’s military veterans, partly because of age and pre-existing health conditions in that population.

U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie told KSL in a one-on-one interview Thursday that their system has not been overwhelmed yet. He said the VA is not letting its guard down anytime soon.

“We have not been overwhelmed by veterans. It could still come but it hasn’t,” said Wilkie.

Since the coronavirus pandemic arrived in the United States in March, the Wikie knew Utah’s veterans would be vulnerable. Within days of the first confirmed COVID-19 case, he said the agency responded with plans to protect veterans, their families and the VA workforce.

“It has taken a toll on families,” he said. “It has not taken the toll that we expected, and we are thankful for that mercy. But, we are preparing in the event it has a major rebound.”

Nationally, the VA has totaled more than 30,000 cases of COVID-19, with more than 1,800 deaths. In addition, 41 VA employees have died across the country.

“The toll could have been much worse,” he said. “The toll could have been higher. But, we took actions early on before the rest of the country even knew what was happening.”

They enacted rules keeping visitors away from Veterans Affairs health care facilities and eliminated elective surgeries before most hospitals.

Here in Utah, 136 veterans have tested positive for the virus since March 22. Eight veterans have died due to COVID-19 in the Salt Lake VA Health Care System. By comparison, two VA health care systems nationally have had more than 100 deaths.

“We really have not been overwhelmed,” said Wilkie. “I mentioned, we have 14,000 beds, we have less than 800 patients in those beds. So we are prepared.”

The VA saw a surge in COVID-19 cases last month in states where the broader population saw the same surge: Texas, Florida, Arizona and California.

So they continue to prepare for an influx of veterans that might test their system, adding more than 20,000 doctors nurses and other staff, he said. The majority of those positions, according to Wilkie, are permanent and will help with ongoing health care for veterans.

“We are stockpiling on equipment. We’re stockpiling medicine in the event that it comes back,” he said.

So far, they have not run out of personal protective equipment, and have never fallen below a two-week supply.

Wilkie urged veterans who believe they have the virus, or any other medical issue, to contact the VA without hesitation.

“If you don’t feel well, call us. If you need us, call us,” he said.

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