Coronavirus News: VA Secretary addresses COVID-19 deaths among veterans in the tri-state

NEW YORK (WABC) -- Coronavirus has taken a toll on veterans in the tri-state area.

In both New York and New Jersey, state-regulated nursing homes serving veterans have experienced among the highest coronavirus death rates, according to data from the NJ and NY Departments of Health.

In New Jersey, the Veterans Memorial Home in Paramus, had lost more residents than any other nursing home in the state as of June 1. In New York, the Long Island State Veterans Home in Suffolk County, had experienced the state's second-highest death rate as of May 31.

Tuesday, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, addressed the Department of Veterans Affairs response to troubles inside these state-regulated facilities.

"When we heard they were in trouble I called the Governor," Secretary Wilkie said. "We dispatched dozens and dozens of nurses and gerontologists to Paramus and Menlo Park to rescue those facilities. You have to remember that is not a federal installation."

The Secretary added the experiences inside these nursing homes and at other nursing homes around the country have caused him to question whether state facilities have a suitable medical presence, sufficient infection control and adequate state oversight.

Wilkie also acknowledged the VA has changed its involvement with state nursing homes serving veterans in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

"We have upped the number of visits we make to those nursing homes," Wilkie said. "But I think there is a larger issue and that is as a nation, we have never had a national conversation about how to care for the most vulnerable. Americans need to stand up and talk about this so it never happens again."
Within healthcare facilities run by the VA, veterans have also experienced losses, particularly in the tri-state region.

Nearly a third of the deaths reported by the Department of Veterans Affairs had been in the tri-state region, according to data current through the morning of June 2.

"We have come through this through this as well as anyone could have expected," Wilkie said.

Families who have spoken to Eyewitness News have described the care their loved-ones have received inside VA hospitals as "top-notch," but they have complained that getting access to those facilities was initially difficult during the pandemic.

"The response we have received from the care receiving side of VA facilities is excellent, but it is getting them inside the facilities to receive the care that is the problem," said James Fitzgerald, Deputy Director of the NYC Veterans Alliance and an advocate for veterans and their families. "The main issue is transparency and it's still the same issue that we are still facing."

Wilkie addressed those concerns.

"It's just simply an example of what goes on in an emergency and we are doing things as rapidly as we can," Wilkie said. "We jettisoned a lot of rules in order to help as many people as we can."

Wilkie also praised VA staff for their hard work caring for COVID-19 patients.

Concerns about a lack of PPE for those workers have been echoed throughout the pandemic and were most recently a topic in a congressional hearing involving Wilkie in late May.

"For New York and the rest of the country, we never fell below two weeks of supply," Wilkie said. "We had the lowest infection rate of employees in any healthcare system not only in the country but in the world."

Wilkie is set to testify before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Wednesday, June 3.

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