McGuire VA work­ers worry their health isn’t taken as se­ri­ously as pa­tients’

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - FRONT PAGE - BY JOHN RAM­SEY Rich­mond Times-Dis­patch

The man work­ing in the pros­thet­ics lab at McGuire VA Med­i­cal Cen­ter was sweat­ing, strug­gling, cough­ing. He pulled the mask from his face to catch his breath, and the cough­ing con­tin­ued, said an­other worker who wit­nessed it on May 20.

Nearly a week later, an email from the chief of pros­thet­ics would con­firm that an em­ployee had tested pos­i­tive for COVID19. But those who worked along­side him the day he was cough­ing in the of­fice weren’t in­di­vid­u­ally no­ti­fied or tested for the dis­ease, which can spread even through peo­ple who don’t show symp­toms.

In­stead, they were ad­vised to tell their boss if they be­gan feel­ing sick.

“I have a pho­bia like no other when I’m in there. I can’t even re­ally con­cen­trate,” said an em­ployee who in­ter­acted with the man who tested pos­i­tive. The em­ployee re­quested anonymity out of fear of re­tal­i­a­tion from bosses. “I come home, and I have a child — I can’t even hug my child . ... I haven’t hugged my son since COVID hit the United

States.”

The em­ployee said she re­ceived a test after an out­break

around April 15, but only after a few days of work­ers de­mand­ing them. An­other VA worker said she knows she’s been in con­tact with three staff mem­bers who tested pos­i­tive, but no one from the hospi­tal has no­ti­fied her or of­fered a test.

The lack of test­ing for em­ploy­ees is among the con­cerns — in­clud­ing a lack of per­sonal pro­tec­tive equip­ment, hazard pay, clean­ing sup­plies, ap­pro­pri­ate leave and re­turn poli­cies for those who’ve been sick — that have prompted let­ters from con­gress­men and protests by work­ers.

“Con­tact trac­ing is crit­i­cally im­por­tant; fail­ure to do so, as some em­ploy­ees al­lege has oc­curred, not only com­pro­mises the health and safety of the en­tire fa­cil­ity, it also jeop­ar­dizes the sur­round­ing com­mu­nity,” U.S. Rep. Don­ald McEachin, D-4th, whose dis­trict in­cludes the VA hospi­tal, wrote in a let­ter to the fa­cil­ity and Sec­re­tary of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs on May 21.

McGuire Di­rec­tor J. Ronald John­son de­clined an in­ter­view re­quest, but a spokesman for the hospi­tal an­swered some of The Times-Dis­patch’s ques­tions by email.

The spokesman, David Hodge, said the hospi­tal has lim­ited its em­ployee in­fec­tion rate to less than 1% of the work­force, lower than other health care sys­tems, cit­ing the rates at hos­pi­tals in Wash­ing­ton and Detroit.

Hodge said Fri­day that the hospi­tal is pro­vid­ing em­ploy­ees with all re­quired PPE and is stocked with an ad­e­quate sup­ply.

McEachin’s let­ter notes that the med­i­cal cen­ter has had more than 100 pa­tients and 30 staff mem­bers test pos­i­tive for the coro­n­avirus.

“Given this se­ri­ous health sit­u­a­tion, I was dis­mayed to hear about the fa­cil­ity’s in­ad­e­quate health and safety poli­cies,” McEachin wrote. “These gaps in cov­er­age not only en­dan­ger the health and safety of the med­i­cal staff pro­vid­ing life-sav­ing care, it also risks the lives of our vet­er­ans seek­ing treat­ment at the fa­cil­ity.”

Joe Benkovics, chief of pros­thet­ics at McGuire, sent an email to work­ers not­ing that an em­ployee in the depart­ment tested pos­i­tive for COVID-19. The note says the em­ployee was only in the of­fice for a cou­ple of hours the week be­fore, and it re­minds work­ers to wear masks, wash hands and san­i­tize ar­eas of­ten. He asks any­one with symp­toms to re­port it to him. But he dis­misses a cou­ple of re­quests he notes have been made by em­ploy­ees:

“What can­not hap­pen

... we can­not close down the ser­vice. We can­not have the en­tire area dis­in­fected,” he wrote in an email that was for­warded to The Times-Dis­patch.

Hodge said Benkovics mis­spoke in his email.

“The area can and will be dis­in­fected,” he said Fri­day, nine days after the in­fected em­ployee was there.

An em­ployee who works in that area said work­ers have been bring­ing their own dis­in­fec­tant and wipes be­cause of a short­age at the hospi­tal.

Work­ers say the hospi­tal no­ti­fies staff mem­bers ex­posed to pa­tients who’ve tested pos­i­tive, but it doesn’t alert those who’ve been in con­tact with other staff mem­bers who test pos­i­tive. Hodge dis­puted that char­ac­ter­i­za­tion last month, say­ing “Ev­ery ef­fort is made to in­clude the em­ploy­ees that po­ten­tially had sig­nif­i­cant ex­po­sure to the iden­ti­fied em­ployee.”

An em­ployee who tests pos­i­tive for COVID-19 can re­turn to work at McGuire after three days with­out a fever and at least 10 days after symp­toms first ap­peared, ac­cord­ing to one op­tion of Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion guid­ance in a memo to staff from John­son.

The hospi­tal is us­ing the less strin­gent form of guid­ance from the CDC in­stead of a test-based strat­egy that re­quires em­ploy­ees to test neg­a­tive for COVID-19 be­fore re­turn­ing to work. Em­ploy­ees are asked screen­ing ques­tions about symp­toms ev­ery two weeks.

While em­ploy­ees can re­turn to work with­out be­ing tested, John­son said in a May 1 note to staff that all new in­pa­tients will be tested be­fore be­ing ad­mit­ted. Hodge said al­low­ing em­ploy­ees to re­turn to work with­out test­ing is one of the op­tions pro­vided by the CDC, and that nei­ther op­tion has been de­ter­mined to be safer.

Last month, nurses told the Rich­mond Times-Dis­patch they feared the hospi­tal put them at higher risk by giv­ing them sur­gi­cal masks in­stead of res­pi­ra­tors, which of­fer bet­ter pro­tec­tion. U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine wrote to the U.S. Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs to say they had heard from con­stituents who work at VA hos­pi­tals and fear for their safety. Work­ers say the sit­u­a­tion has im­proved since then, but not enough.

The sur­gi­cal masks they re­ceive of­fer some pro­tec­tion, but two McGuire work­ers said it’s im­pos­si­ble to do ba­sic tasks like give med­i­ca­tion or feed peo­ple with­out the pa­tients re­mov­ing their masks, in­creas­ing the risk of ex­po­sure.

An­other em­ployee said she re­sponded to a call for help in the dial­y­sis unit last week for a pa­tient show­ing dan­ger­ous vi­tal signs. But the pa­tient was also pos­i­tive for the virus, and there was no PPE in the unit. Em­ploy­ees had to spend pre­cious min­utes rush­ing to other ar­eas of the hospi­tal to find it. The em­ployee said she doesn’t know what be­came of the pa­tient, but the sit­u­a­tion wor­ries her for the pa­tient and the staff.

Em­ploy­ees say a lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion from the ad­min­is­tra­tion com­pounds an in­ad­e­quate re­sponse.

On March 26, John­son an­nounced “our first con­firmed in­pa­tient with COVID-19” in an email to staff. An­other note he sent April 24 said four pa­tients had died as of March 9, the first men­tion of a death in his up­dates.

McEachin men­tioned the same is­sue in his let­ter to the VA.

Hodge said the VA has pub­licly re­leased informatio­n on COVID-19 deaths and reg­u­larly shares the informatio­n with em­ploy­ees. He said John­son’s up­dates aren’t of­fi­cial death no­ti­fi­ca­tions and that March 9 is sim­ply the date VA sta­tis­tics on COVID-19 start.

On May 22, a small group of em­ploy­ees stood 6 feet apart dur­ing a protest by the front gate at McGuire, wear­ing masks and hold­ing signs de­mand­ing bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions, in­clud­ing hazard pay, pro­tec­tive equip­ment, and weather and safety leave ap­proval. They chanted: “What do we need? PPE. When do we need it? Now.”

Hodge said hazard pay is “to com­pen­sate em­ploy­ees when risks can­not be rea­son­ably mit­i­gated and em­ploy­ees can­not be safely pro­tected, and that is the op­po­site of the cur­rent en­vi­ron­ment at the Cen­tral Vir­ginia VA Health Care Sys­tem.”

Other VA hos­pi­tals around the na­tion have in­sti­tuted dif­fer­ent forms of pay boosts, from flat bonuses to 10% to 25% hourly in­creases, but it’s not be­ing called hazard pay and it hasn’t been ap­plied evenly, said Ben Speight, a na­tional union rep­re­sen­ta­tive for VA work­ers.

Speight said it’s disin­gen­u­ous for VA lead­ers to say they shouldn’t give hazard pay be­cause work­ers are given the equip­ment to pro­tect them­selves from the virus be­cause “uni­ver­sally when you talk to work­ers on the ground ... that’s not the case.”

Nelly Decker, a spokes­woman for Sen. Warner, said in an email Thurs­day that em­ploy­ees and lead­ers at McGuire noted that some con­di­tions had im­proved, “in­clud­ing re­quir­ing that all em­ploy­ees wear masks, pro­vid­ing more tele­work­ing flex­i­bil­ity and in­creas­ing PPE avail­abil­ity.”

She added: “How­ever, we con­tinue to have con­cerns about whether the guide­lines are suf­fi­ciently ro­bust to pro­tect staff and the vet­er­ans they are car­ing for.”

“I was dis­mayed to hear about the ... in­ad­e­quate health and safety poli­cies.” U.S. Rep. Don­ald McEachin, D-4th, whose dis­trict in­cludes McGuire Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Med­i­cal Cen­ter

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