The VA ran low on personal protective equipment in the early period of the pandemic but never ran out, says an IG report that meanwhile notes—but does not examine—the department’s policies for using available supplies that triggered complaints from individual employees and their unions about health risks to VA employees and patients.
In interviews with people involved with logistics operations at 42 facilities, IG auditors “found no one reported running out” of gloves, masks, gowns and other medical PPE through steps such as emergency ordering and shifting of available supplies among facilities.
The department meanwhile took what it called “conservation” steps including: asking employees performing high-risk procedures on suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients to wear the same N95 respirator for use with multiple patients; providing only one face mask per day to employees participating in screening activities or providing care to COVID-19 positive patients in non-high-risk procedures; and encouraging staff to reuse face masks between patients, adding that extended use was preferred when possible.
“Because of the potential negative impact on the safety of VHA staff and veterans, members of Congress questioned the austerity measures, having heard whistleblower complaints about the repeated reuse of masks,” it said.
The IG added that over February-April of last year it received more than 100 complaints to its hotline alleging that a facility had a general PPE shortage, that clinical staff did not receive PPE, that employees did not receive PPE, or that staff were discouraged from using PPE.
However, the report said that issues of “the validity or outcomes of these individual complaints” and whether conservation strategies were “reasonable or sufficient” were outside the scope of its review of the supply chain.
It credited the department with taking “swift steps to work around known limitations” in that chain, including that the system was not able to track supplies of PPE in real time. For example, it said, the VA developed a tool for facilities to request supplies they were unable to procure through regular channels and a tool for daily tracking of usage and supply levels.