Grand Island message

Volunteers put up a tribute to workers at the VA Medical Center in Grand Island last week.

Four patients and two staff members of the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, VA officials acknowledged Friday, and one local veteran has died.

The veteran who died from the coronavirus was a man in his 80s who had cancer and was in hospice care at the Douglas County Health Center, near the Omaha VA Medical Center on Woolworth Avenue. His death was previously reported by The World-Herald on April 4, but not his veteran status.

COVID-19 cases have been diagnosed at Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers in both Omaha and Grand Island, said Kevin Hynes, a VA spokesman.

A resident at the Central Nebraska Veterans’ Home in Kearney also tested positive, officials announced Saturday.

Two veterans are being treated as inpatients at the Omaha VA Medical Center, he said. Another has recovered and gone home. Of 67 veterans who have been tested by the VA locally, 63 have tested negative for COVID-19.

Dr. David Williams, the health care system’s chief of staff, said Omaha’s 5.8% rate of positive tests is far lower than at VA medical centers in New York, where the rate exceeds 30%.

“It’s a very vulnerable population, and yet we’re seeing a really low rate,” he said.

One of the two employees is also under quarantine. The second has recovered, Williams said. Neither was linked to any of the patients who contracted the virus.

The number of cases in Omaha has been unclear because of mistakes by the VA headquarters in Washington on its coronavirus website, publichealth.va.gov/n-coronavirus.

Since late March, the website has been listing positive tests at each VA medical center around the country. Until last week, it was listing as many as 14 cases under “Central Plains HCS (Omaha, Neb.).” However, there is not currently a Central Plains Health Care System within the VA.

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On Tuesday, the VA changed the title to “VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System.” By Saturday, the number of cases was 15. Nationwide, the VA recorded 3,754 COVID-19 cases and 200 deaths.

Williams said he is certain about the Omaha VA’s numbers: 4 positives among 67 tests.

“We track our numbers every day,” he said.

He believes the VA is lumping numbers from medical centers in Des Moines and Iowa City in with Omaha’s because years ago all three centers operated under the same bureaucratic umbrella.

Williams said the Omaha VA hasn’t suffered the shortages of equipment and personnel reported at other VA medical centers around the country and that were forecast in a VA inspector general report issued in late March.

The IG’s office sent inspectors unannounced into 58 medical centers and 125 regional clinics between March 19 and 24, and followed up by interviewing senior administrators at 54 of the 58 hospitals, including Omaha.

VA Medical Center (copy) (copy)

The VA Medical Center in Omaha is in the process of more than doubling its number of beds ahead of an expected surge of COVID-19 cases.

Among their findings:

  • 16 of the 58, including Omaha, needed to improve their process for screening patients. (Omaha unveiled a retooled screening system March 31.)
  • 32 of 54 administrators, including Omaha’s, expected shortages of supplies in the event of a surge of cases. At Omaha, shortages were expected of gowns, surgical masks, N95 respirators, hand sanitizer and bleach.
  • 25 of 54 administrators, including Omaha’s, said they expected staffing shortages. At Omaha, the shortfall was expected in the areas of police and environmental management, which includes custodians and housekeepers.

Union officials representing VA workers across the country have complained of shortages of protective equipment at VA facilities across the country, leaving them feeling unprepared and at times frightened to face the coronavirus pandemic.

Irma Westmoreland, a nurse at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, Georgia, told Military Times that the hospital where she works has already run out of paper gowns and is warning staffers to ration their use of linens.

She is president of National Nurses United, which represents 12,000 nurses at 23 VA facilities across the country.

“When we get a surge of cases, where will we be?” Westmoreland told Military Times. “I’m afraid for my co-workers, and I’m afraid for my family.”

VA Pre-Screening (copy)

Patients being prescreened at the VA Medical Center in Omaha earlier this month.

Leaders of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 2270, which represents workers at the Omaha VA, did not respond to messages left through its national headquarters.

Williams said the VA has acquired additional supplies — including donated shipments of hand sanitizer from Brickway Brewery in the Old Market and the veteran-owned Soldier Valley Spirits in La Vista — since the inspector general visited last month. Extra equipment has also been donated by Westside Community Schools and the group PPE for Nebraska.

“We’ve been using these donated supplies,” Williams said.

He acknowledged that masks are being rationed in some cases and are handed out by supervisors.

“Every facility had concerns early on about the burn rate,” Williams said. “Right now, we have adequate levels of protective gear.”

He said he believes the state also has enough ICU beds and ventilators to get through a pandemic peak that is expected in late April. They have arrangements in place to help civilian hospitals in an emergency, and vice versa.

“We’re all following the model very carefully,” Williams said. “We want to make sure if the surge comes, we are ready.”