Note: The following article first appeared at In Military.
If the COVID-19 pandemic can teach us anything, it’s that a nation’s healthcare system can become overwhelmed in a very short time.
Many places in Italy are calling in doctors and nurses from retirement, and even tapping into medical schools for help. Many anecdotes coming from the country tell of doctors who are forced to make the agonizing decision of who will live and who will die based on which patients are more likely to survive. Doctors in Italy now liken the moral choices they must face to the forms of wartime triage that are required in the field of “catastrophe medicine.”
And while countries like China and Italy appear to have turned a corner, due in part to draconian lockdown measures, the United States now faces the same, horrifying trajectory that Italy faced only a few short weeks ago.
Because of this, experts worry, and rightly so, that America’s for-profit healthcare system may be at risk of becoming overwhelmed as U.S. cases continue to increase exponentially.
But there is one not-for-profit, even downright socialized, healthcare system in the U.S. that many rarely consider: the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), one of the branches of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
The VA Has a Sizable Healthcare Footprint in America
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, 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 1,243 health care facilities in the nation’s single largest integrated health care system.
After President Trump’s recent national emergency declaration, the VA started preparations for its role of “back up public health system” in the event that the COVID-19 pandemic escalates further.
But Staffing Shortages at VA Could Cause Problems Responding to Coronavirus
Data released in August revealed 49,000 vacant positions across the VA, which employs more than 390,000 people. While the department’s budget has since been increased, tens of thousands of jobs remain unfilled.
While the VA has improved significantly since the Phoenix VA hospital scandal, many veterans still report long wait times to receive care due in part to staffing shortages.
What’s more, the VA has only received 1,000 coronavirus test kits from the CDC, with another 2000 VA-developed tests for the over 9 million veterans that VA serves.
On Saturday, the VA lost its first patient to coronavirus, a 70-year-old veteran who also was Oregon’s first fatality from the new disease. In total, VA reports 30 positive coronavirus cases out of 322 COVID-19 tests nationwide.
VA Has a Phenomenal Telehealth Operation
As a veteran who has used the VA’s proprietary VA Video Connect system for medical appointments, I can attest that the VA is extremely forward-thinking in the field of telemedicine. Part of this is by necessity; many veterans simply live too far away from a VA facility to be seen by a physician in-person routinely.
But such a robust telehealth system could be employed for the general public as a first line of defense to triage patients who believe that they may have coronavirus symptoms.
In fact, the VA is advising all veterans with symptoms such as fever, cough or shortness of breath to implement the administration’s telehealth options before driving to a VA facility.
The US Is at a Tipping Point
Staffing shortages aside, the VA has the infrastructure in place to dramatically support America’s private healthcare system should the need arise.
As deaths from coronavirus continue to climb in America, 100 as of this writing, the nation is finally awakened to the importance of social distancing. After all, the virus has no legs or wings; the only way it can move is with us. Social distancing, along with mindful personal hygiene, is the single greatest weapon against this global pandemic.
With large metropolitan hubs like San Francisco and New York City sheltering in place, and an increased public awareness of the danger now facing our nation, perhaps we may now begin to “flatten the curve”; an epidemiological term for stopping the exponential spike of new cases.
Now we wait, and watch. But if needed, the VA is prepared to provide backup to a private healthcare system that, after Italy, appears more vulnerable to being overwhelmed than anyone anticipated.
These are difficult times. But our nation has faced other existential threats before and emerged stronger and wiser.
Stay vigilant. Stay healthy.