In the first publicly released agency plan of its kind for returning to normal operations, the VA has outlined conditions for changing some of the special personnel and operating policies it has been using due to the pandemic.
The announcement comes as federal agencies continue feeling their way toward bringing back to regular workplaces their employees who have been teleworking or in leave status.
The IRS remains the lead agency on that score, with thousands of employees—the exact number is uncertain—having returned on a voluntary basis over the last two weeks with pay incentives that vary according to the nature of the work. Also, the Census Bureau has restarted some field office operations and the National Park Service has been reopening parks, or parts of them, on a local basis. Several other agencies meanwhile have been recalling only political appointees and certain other senior employees.
The moves come as agencies are gathering more masks and other personal protective equipment that has been in short supply even for employees who have been kept at their regular duty stations. Some of it is being newly distributed to agencies by FEMA while some agencies have been procuring equipment on their own.
Weighed against those gains are concerns about the potential for infections among returning employees in addition to what likely is thousands of infections, and likely more than 100 deaths, among employees who have remained at their official duty stations.
The VA is one of the most closely watched agencies, most recently reporting some 1,300 infections and 28 deaths among its employees. While the VA has seen a workload surge with an influx of covid patients, including some who are not veterans, it has limited some types of medical care and has put many non-medical personnel on telework status.
Under its plan, medical facilities will be considered in Phase 1 once certain local conditions are met including falling numbers of patients exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, reduced numbers of people testing positive for the virus, and increased testing capacity. “Once these and other conditions are met, local VA facilities will maintain their current risk-mitigation activities (such as continued telework when possible) but may also begin assessing how best to permit elective procedures and resume certain face-to-face visits that have been postponed,” the VA said.
“Phase 2 of the plan is the resumption of services that have been postponed, again as deemed possible based on local conditions, and subject to safety protocols deemed as necessary by local staff. In Phase 3, VA facilities will again allow visitors to hospitals, community living centers, senior living facilities, and spinal cords injury and disorder units after a full assessment of the risks and only amid continuing improvement in their part of the country. Most VA employees will also return to work in this phase.”
VA’s cemeteries, benefit administrators and Board of Veterans Appeals will use the same approach in determining when and how to resume activities such as interments and face-to-face meetings with veterans about their status, it said.