- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 24, 2020

NEW ORLEANS | Outside the Veterans Administration hospital here — by far the hardest hit by the coronavirus in the U.S. network of military care facilities — it’s something of a ghost town.

Tents are being erected outside the facility on Galvez Street that will serve as a drive-through testing site, and a handful of employees eat lunch or stroll outside. Like most VA hospitals, New Orleans is closed to visitors.

“But as far as the virus goes, I think they’re doing a good job when it comes to the safety of the vets and staff,” said McNeal Lewis, a former Marine who now works in the VA records department.

Indeed, as hospitals across the country scramble to make sure they have enough medical supplies to meet the coronavirus pandemic’s demands, the nation’s VA facilities aren’t worried.

Officials at the network of 170 medical centers that provide care to an estimated 9 million veterans say they’ve got plenty of critical items such as masks and ventilators. VA is treating almost 300 cases of COVID-19 infections nationwide.

“VA facilities are equipped with essential items and supplies to handle an influx of coronavirus cases,” said Christina Mandreucci, the department’s press secretary. “Regarding testing, VA facilities’ testing capacity meets current demand.”

The VA has administered 2,726 coronavirus tests and is tracking 204 cases of COVID-19 infection or potential infection, according to data released Monday. The U.S. had recorded more than 53,000 cases and about 700 deaths as of Tuesday evening, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker.

The biggest hot zone by far is New Orleans, where the VA has 63 potential cases, 12 of whom are inpatient and another 31 pending as of Tuesday. The next closest, Atlanta, has 17 cases, 15 of whom are quarantining at home.

Staffers in New Orleans believe the number hospitalized is a bit higher — between 20 and 25 they said — and those are being housed almost exclusively on a second-floor wing where the hospital’s first coronavirus patient surfaced.

Other areas with multiple cases are New York Harbor (13 cases: 8 home quarantined and 5 inpatient); Puget Sound (4 of 13 are inpatient); Washington (2 of 10 inpatient) and San Juan, Puerto Rico, where one of 11 is being treated inpatient.

The Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics, the nation’s third largest VA hospital with 600 staffed beds, instituted drive-through testing Monday. Like its counterparts nationwide, the facility announced that everyone entering its buildings must be screened for the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus.

The screening, which every employee undergoes daily, involves a series of questions about fever, coughing and the like, the major symptoms associated with the coronavirus, New Orleans workers said.

Last week, the popular African American radio personality DJ Black-n-Mild (the name comes from a cigarette brand), died from coronavirus at 44, and his brother, a veteran who checked on DJ Black-n-Mild when they thought he had pneumonia, is now a patient at the VA hospital, according to staffers.

Anticipating a surge in cases, the eight outpatient clinics in northeastern Ohio run by the Cleveland VA were converted Monday into “tele-triage,” said spokeswoman Kristen Parker, meaning they no longer handle appointments on site.

“When it comes to testing, we are taking samples on-site and getting them processed locally. “We will soon have on-site testing capabilities.”

Fears have risen in the U.S. that the crush of patients infected with the virus would overwhelm hospital staffs, leaving them without masks for physicians and health care workers, and ventilators to help patients’ infected lungs.

The VA had assured Congress early this month that it was preparing for the worst.

“We train for this. We train not only for national disasters but we train for epidemics,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie testified March 4 before a House committee. “We have been putting in place those courses of action that we use for Ebola and H1N1 in the past. So, we will be approaching this as we have these other issues.”

Still, most VA facilities have been closed to all but patients and health providers. In New Orleans, all noncritical appointments have been moved to at least April 24, and staff have been instructed not to book new appointments before June, several workers said.

Major veterans groups have had to cancel activities, under state orders or because they’re following the White House’s “social distancing” guidelines.

Communication lines to some of the VAs most likely customers at local American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars were also damaged, given so many of them have canceled activities, such as weekly Bingo games, either under state order or by common sense guidelines about social distancing.

“As far as I know, nobody has come down with it,” said Mary Leaycraft, the office manager of the American Legion in Covington, Louisiana, which has more than 400 active members. “But they don’t go anywheres unless they really have to.”

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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