Employees at the Veterans Affairs Department are feeling pressured to return to work even after they've been exposed to the novel coronavirus—a new VA policy requires them to continue showing up, and threatens discipline along with the possibility of losing pay for those who stay home.
The situation is creating a stressful environment in which VA workers worry their colleagues may be hiding symptoms while they have insufficient equipment to protect themselves and others from spreading the virus. Government Executive spoke to employees at more than a half-dozen facilities, all of whom said management was providing inconsistent guidance and creating unsafe working conditions.
To date, more than 5,000 patients and 1,600 staff at VA facilities have tested positive for COVID-19; more than 300 patients and more than a dozen staff have died from the disease. Until recently at some facilities, staff told Government Executive, some administrative staff were not even allowed to wear masks, either because there weren't enough to go around and they were being reserved for medical personnel with more sustained patient contact, or because supervisors were worried about alarming patients and visitors.
At some facilities, VA officials have instituted policies under which employees who worked with COVID-19 positive patients before their status was known—and therefore were not wearing the proper equipment—should continue to work until they develop symptoms, after which they could be tested for the virus. In some cases, those employees included nurses and doctors who subsequently tested positive for the virus but returned after seven days when their symptoms were no longer evident, employees said. One memorandum sent by a top official at a medical center in Indianapolis said VA facilities should consider enabling employees “who have had an exposure to a COVID-19 patient to continue to work after options to improve staffing have been exhausted.”