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I Got My COVID Vaccine at the VA – and Am I Glad I Did

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The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) seems to be the one federal Cabinet-level agency that veterans love to hate. From grumbling about long wait times to complaining about ancient VA hospitals, if there is one thing all vets share, it’s their love of bashing the VA.

Don’t misunderstand; we do it out of love. After all, the 412,892 federal employees who make up VA are some of the most dedicated and passionate individuals around, and many of them are veterans themselves.

But veterans are going to complain. It’s what we do. In fact, as an old Army saying puts it, “The only time you start worrying about a soldier is when he stops complaining!”

To be fair, VA has had a rocky past. The Phoenix VA scandal of 2014 is still a fresh wound in the memories of many vets. But if we’re going to hold the VA accountable when it does something wrong, it’s only fair that we acknowledge its vast improvements.

As a VA patient with a service-connected disability, I have witnessed the VA reforms firsthand. Today, VA healthcare is a fantastic option for eligible veterans who may not have access to healthcare from their employer. Wait times have been drastically reduced, VA clinics and hospitals have received the modern infrastructure upgrades many needed, and the agency has invested heavily in customer service excellence.

I actually look forward to calling the VA because everyone is so darn nice now.

Coronavirus Put the VA on High Alert

When the coronavirus first struck a year ago in the U.S., it was feared that civilian hospitals could become overrun with patients. As a result, the VA geared up to become the nation’s backup medical system, should we need it.

After all, the VA has a full-service hospital in nearly every major city in the United States. According to VA data, these hospitals have 20,354 usable inpatient beds with an average occupancy rate of 67%. In addition, the VA has another 15,109 beds across numerous long-term care facilities and 2045 Intensive Care Unit beds spread across the nation. In total, the VA runs about 1,700 health care facilities as the nation’s single largest integrated health care system.

Getting a COVID Vaccine through VA

A year into the coronavirus pandemic has seen the development of numerous vaccines. I put myself and my family on the vaccine waiting list with our normal provider and registered just myself on the VA’s wait list.

As a moderately healthy middle-aged man, I knew I would be one of the last to receive the vaccine, but I was curious who was going to call first, my civilian doctor or Veterans Affairs.

Last week, I received my answer. While browsing email, I got a message stating that the VA was having a COVID vaccination clinic at a local West Michigan landmark, the USS Silversides Submarine Museum in Muskegon. All veterans were welcome; even those who were not signed up as VA patients.

Note: If you haven’t been to the Silversides, it is a phenomenal Pacific War museum whose crown jewel is a fully intact Gato-class submarine from World War II. You can even spend the night on the submarine. Be sure to check out the website.

The day arrived and despite an initial long line, it moved fast as patients were given a number and shuffled into military-precise rank and file lines.

Those veterans who were not registered as VA patients had to take a 10-minute detour to “get in the system.”

When my number was called, I made a joke about being frightened of needles (I’m not). But the compassionate people at the VA took me seriously and started asking me about the meaning of the tattoo on my right arm in an attempt to keep my mind off what the nurse practitioner was doing with my left arm.

Before I knew it, I had received my Moderna shot and was sent to a monitoring area to sit for 15 minutes to be watched for signs of an adverse reaction.

Ultimately, it was a painless experience and serves to illustrate the vast improvements that the VA has made since the dark days of 2014 and earlier. The efficiency and organization were a particular highlight and even the local ABC TV affiliate from Grand Rapids came out to do a story for the 5 p.m. news broadcast.

I received my vaccination card with a follow-up date to get my second shot in a month and I suspect that that experience will be just as seamless.

As for the VA, I’m still going to complain about it because that’s what veterans do. But I’m secretly rooting for its continued success. I’ve written very critically about the VA in the past. But I’m happy to say now that the significant improvements have made me a proud VA patient and the department is now an unlikely leader in American healthcare.

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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