VA Secretary Robert Wilkie: Salisbury VA quickly adapted to COVID-19 challenges

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 17, 2020

By Robert Wilkie

The importance of military service to America’s safety and security never needs to be explained to North Carolinians.

That is why I was pleased to see how well veterans from that state are being cared for at the Salisbury VA Health Care System and facilities that are part of that system like the Charlotte Health Care Center.

COVID-19 was a shock to every health care provider in the nation, but the Salisbury VA System moved quickly to keep veterans safe and showed that VA is a top performer in times of crisis.

Salisbury quickly adjusted to the new normal by converting a 12-bed hospice building into a COVID-19 isolation unit to care for incoming patients. This was accomplished in 72 hours.

Thanks to the availability of a new rapid testing platform, Salisbury has been able to perform COVID-19 tests in less than one hour. So far, the Salisbury VA system has tested more than 2,200 patients and employees, and 589 of them got their results using the rapid platform.

This part of the country was blessed with a relatively low infection rate compared to others, but that did not mean VA stood still. When an outbreak occurred at the N.C. State Veterans Home and a local contract nursing facility where veterans reside, the Salisbury VA Medical Center deployed staff to those spots and helped them set up testing and staff training.

Salisbury took in 18 patients from these two facilities, and eight of them tested positive for COVID-19. The numbers show that when a second wave of COVID-19 occurred, VA training cut the risk in half for residents compared to other locations in the state.

When I visited these facilities on June 10-11, the Salisbury VAMC was treating just one COVID-19 patient in an intensive care unit and facility leaders informed me there have been no transmissions of the virus from patient to medical staff, a sign internal controls are strong.

The sharp rise in remote care delivery is another testament to how quickly the team adjusted. In February, Salisbury had more than 121,000 face-to-face appointments, about 9,400 phone appointments and not even 300 VA Video Connect appointments.

By May, face-to-face appointments fell by 75%, but VA stayed in touch with veterans, as the number of phone appointments more than quadrupled, and the facility was conducting 10 times the number of Video Connect appointments.

The dedication of VA employees at the Salisbury VA Health Care System contributed to the strong national effort VA made for veterans in the face of COVID-19 and ensured we could keep living up to President Lincoln’s call that we serve those who served this nation in uniform.

Before the outbreak, the VA was hard at work implementing the MISSION Act, which President Trump signed into law in 2018 to give veterans real, permanent choice in the private sector. But we showed why VA will always be a critical option for Veterans once COVID-19 appeared in the United States.

The day after the first U.S. case was confirmed, VA implemented its emergency management procedures to begin managing its medical supplies. VA released guidance on COVID-19 mitigation measures to all facilities, developed a long-term plan to keep Veterans safe, and expanded telehealth services before there were 50 confirmed cases in the U.S.

VA moved swiftly to hire medical staff and keep our most vulnerable veterans safe by limiting visitors to our VA operated nursing homes and our spinal cord injury centers.

As a result of these and other steps, VA was able to control the spread of COVID-19 among both our patients and our staff. Our nationwide infection rate among staff is less than 1% ⁠— lower than other facility infection rates reported in the U.S. or elsewhere.

We were able to test more than 200,000 veterans for the virus, the vast majority of which were returned negative. Of the more than 12,000 veterans nationwide who tested positive, 80% of them are now 14 days past their last positive test and are recovering at home.

VA had the staff, the space and the supplies to care for thousands of Veterans who tested positive.

VA was also able to perform its Fourth Mission, which is to support the national health care system in times of crisis. Just as North Carolina facilities cared for non-Veteran patients, VA nationwide was able to take in hundreds of patients from state Veterans homes and nursing homes from regions that became COVID-19 hotspots.

COVID-19 challenged us like never before, but the staff at the Salisbury VA Health Care System passed, and ably lived up to your state motto – Esse quam videri – by attacking the problem head on and delivering the real care and attention our veterans have earned.

Robert Wilkie (@SecWilkie) is the 10th Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.