Last month, the Northport Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center took an important step toward resuming normal operations for Veterans whose lives were disrupted when coronavirus devastated New York.
Few could have predicted how dramatically the virus would change our world. Under President Trump’s leadership, the VA oversaw dramatic changes at hospitals and clinics across the nation to keep serving Veterans as safely as possible.
As I learned during my recent visit, the Northport VA acted quickly to protect Veterans, which built trust in the community and put the hospital on solid footing to expand its in-person services while ensuring continued patient safety.
The facility shifted its nursing staff to serve inpatients as the virus emerged. It delayed elective surgeries and adjusted work schedules to ensure patient protection. Clearly, innovations and enhanced treatments are important as we continue to address this scourge. The danger from this virus has not passed and the persisting public health concerns require employees at all levels to implement measures from lessons learned.
The Northport VA expanded the number of medical/surgical beds by more than 50 percent and turned its ambulance bay area into a makeshift emergency room for COVID-19 testing and triage space.
As the need for social distancing became critical, the Northport VA maintained contact with Veteran patients by dramatically expanding the use of telehealth. In the months preceding thepandemic, Northport logged about 100 virtual appointments each month. This figure compares to nearly 4,000 virtual connections made with patients in April, while May and June each saw more than 5,000 virtual appointments — a 50-fold increase from just months earlier — as staff worked to stay connected with patients.
As of mid-July, the Northport VA tested more than 1,700 patients for COVID-19 with 272 patients testing positive.
I’m especially proud of how Northport protected residents of the VA-run nursing home on its campus. Northport restricted visitors to the nursing home it manages and was able to control the virus at a time when it swept through other nursing homes in that area of New York. In the end, fewer than three dozen of its nursing home patients would contract the virus, and the last positive case for this vulnerable group of patients was more than a month ago.
These steps and others had an incredible effect on Veterans — their trust in the Northport VA is higher now than it was last summer, even in the wake of an unpredictable pandemic that tested health care systems across the country.
Outpatient surveys in June 2020 indicate 92.4 percent of Veterans trust the care they receive at Northport — Veterans 80 years and older, who are most vulnerable to COVID-19, have the highest trust in VA care during the past year.
Northport is looking to build on that trust with the first phase of its plan to resume normal operations, which it implemented in July 2020. That plan will allow the continuation of some face-to-face medical appointments and some surgeries, including vascular, orthopedic, ear, nose and throat, urology, podiatry and gynecology.
The plan also puts in place strict protocols aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19.
Masks are required, and all hospital entrances are, with temperature checks and symptom screening. Infrastructure changes have been made that encourage social distancing of at least six feet as patients and families move around the facility. Staff members are teleworking when possible to minimize contact with others.
The Northport VA is insisting on continued virtual appointments except when a face-to-face meeting is necessary. It is closely monitoring its supply chain to ensure a minimum 60-day supply of personal protective equipment and is keeping open 30% of its inpatient beds so it is prepared for any new surge in COVID-19 patients. The facility is constantly educating patients, staff and families on how to stay healthy and safe.
The Northport VA maintained and built on Veterans’ trust during the pandemic and after meeting with leadership and staff, I’m confident that trust will continue to grow.
Robert Wilkie is Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs
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