With two area military veterans diagnosed with COVID-19, the White River Junction VA Medical Center is scrambling to double its capacity for intensive treatment, officials said Wednesday.
“We are acutely aware of the statistics of how many and what kind of patients are going to need that higher level care,” associate director Becky Rhoads said.
The Upper Valley hospital is one of 21 Veterans Affairs facilities nationwide that is already treating patients who have tested positive for coronavirus, federal data shows. One patient, whom the Vermont Department of Health described as a Windsor County man in his 90s, is hospitalized at the facility; his condition has not been disclosed.
The second individual is on home quarantine, according to the VA, an indication that his or her condition is stable. Rhoads said that person was identified through a telehealth service and tested at an outdoor screening station on the VA campus. That person’s age and residency have not been made public.
The hospital has 37 beds and seven intensive care unit, or ICU, beds. It is seeking to add seven additional ICU beds, according to Rhoads. Staff worked last weekend to convert rooms for the expanded unit, but hospital officials are still figuring out how to ensure that additional nurses with ICU experience are available round the clock.
The measure follows previous decisions to restrict hospital visitors and, as of Tuesday, to screen hospital arrivals in the parking lot. Individuals with certain symptoms or risk factors are then sent to a second outdoor screening area where a test may be administered. Any veteran with a cough, fever or shortness of breath must call a patient phone line before going in for treatment.
Rhoads did not disclose how many tests the White River Junction hospital has administered, but as of Wednesday, the VA reported administering 322 tests nationwide. The VA operates 170 medical centers around the country.
“It’s not about having tests, at this point,” she said. “We’re trying to test only the people who need to be tested.”
About half of the 9 million veterans enrolled in the VA health care program are over the age of 65, putting them at higher risk to develop serious illness from the virus. The White River Junction hospital serves about 26,000 veterans in Vermont and New Hampshire, though enrolled veterans can seek treatment in civilian hospitals as well.
The coronavirus pandemic is testing a VA health care system with a documented workforce shortage, among other problems. The White River Junction facility posted an 11 percent vacancy rate in the last fiscal quarter, federal data shows, mirroring the system-wide rate.
As the current crisis has unfolded, VA workers' representatives have raised alarm about the agency’s preparedness level. Leaders of five federal health care workers' unions issued a joint statement last week saying they were “deeply dismayed by the lack of preparations, planning, and communications so far,” which they claimed put frontline workers at risk.
“It is clear from the administration’s utter lack of preparation at the Veterans Health Administration that they have not taken the steps necessary to protect health care workers charged with caring for our nation’s cherished veterans,” said National Federation of Federal Employees president Randy Erwin.
The latest VA data lists 44 confirmed COVID-19 cases nationally and one death. A doctor at the Brooklyn, N.Y., facility also tested positive last week.
Rhoads said officials at the Vermont facility set up an emergency command center on February 28.
“The hospital has been preparing for this for weeks,” she said. “I do feel that we’re prepared.”