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