Even as Veterans Affairs staffers prepare to deploy outside their hospitals to help with the national response to the fast-spreading coronavirus, Secretary Robert Wilkie is promising that the department’s first focus will always be caring for veterans.
“We don’t release any beds if veterans are needing them,” Wilkie said in an interview with Military Times on Thursday. “The veterans still are primary. We are a (health) bridge for the larger community, but that’s only after veterans are taking care of.”
Wilkie’s comments come as White House officials are in discussion with senior VA leaders about the department’s fourth mission — to provide medical assistance and personnel to civilian health systems in the event of national emergencies.
That has been invoked in the past for natural disasters in localized areas, but not on the scale of the coronavirus pandemic, which has spread across the United States in the last two weeks from fewer than 1,000 cases to now more than 54,000.
VA’s own number of coronavirus cases has jumped too, up nearly one-third from Wednesday to today. The department has 484 patients who have tested positive, but outside advocates have said they believe the number is much higher.