How Prepared was the Marion VA in Handling the COVID-19 Pandemic?

Editor’s Note: Because of the sensitive nature of this story, we decided not to credit our source and have allowed them to remain anonymous.

Over the last week or so, WTHR 13 News has been reporting newly discovered information out of the Marion Veterans Affairs location on how they have been handling the current COVID-19 pandemic and the need for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) at its facility.

While the story from 13 News has more or less “blown up” in Grant County, we recently received additional information from an anonymous source, which elaborates on the problems surrounding PPE at the facility, as well as provides more information on new protocols and how the VA overall is addressing this pandemic.

According to the article from 13 News, it was recently discovered that governmental agencies, including Veterans Affairs, auctioned off “N95 masks, gloves, gowns, hoods, face shields and PAPRs (powered air purifying respirators) that are in high demand by respiratory therapists, doctors and other front line health care workers.”

The article from 13 News does explain the equipment auctioned off had approaching expiration dates, however, one photo on the auction site shows that the expiration date was not until June of 2020.

Marion, Indiana’s VA location sold one of these PPE kits to an anonymous bidder who offered up $2,010 for the entire package.

When 13 News started asking questions of the VA, most importantly questions as to why the agency chose to auction off the equipment at this time, they received mixed messages. The VA first claimed that they “decided to sell a small amount of excess equipment that was procured to be used for Ebola treatment and not typically used for COVID-19,” but when 13 News reporters pointed out that statement was not factual, the VA then tried to claim that they had only auctioned off small parts of the PPE kits but had taken out the equipment needed for treating COVID-19 beforehand.

Those claims made by the VA were contradictory to the statements 13 News received from the General Services Administration (GSA), whose website was used to auction the items, and who told 13 News that “government officials could not have known in January and early February that PPE items would need to be retained to help protect health care workers from COVID-19.”

One of the items that was auctioned off by the Marion VA is something called PAPRs, or Powered Air Purifying Respirators, and the VA admitted to 13 News that they had sold those items and called them “non-essential” in treating COVID-19, despite the fact that many nurses and doctors disagree and are in dire need of such devices.

In information we received from our anonymous source, we learned that, as a result of those PAPRs being auctioned off, the Marion VA location and the Fort Wayne location are currently having to share a total of six PAPRs between the two facilities — a number that our source suggested was inadequate. It was also suggested that those six PAPRs were recently bought by the VA system, due to the shortage caused by the earlier auction.

We were also informed that the staff at the Marion VA is currently trying to use donated alcohol to make hand sanitizer in five gallon buckets, again, due to the shortage of equipment.

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A person concerned with the new practices taking place at the VA in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic also stated that the staff at Marion are simply using contact isolation gowns around people either known or suspected to be a positive case of COVID-19, instead of water resistant gowns, which they insinuated would be the logical gown to use in this situation.

Another item in short supply at the VA at this time are face masks. In order to mitigate this problem, the VA has implemented new guidelines for their employees, which include (in dire cases) using homemade masks during their official duties with the VA.

New protocols set by the VA say that employees are only to be given one mask a day

  • if an employee is screening for COVID-19 without taking samples, or
  • if an employee is in contact with a positive COVID-19 person but is not undergoing high-risk procedures with that person

In the event that an employee is coming into contact with suspected positive COVID-19 cases and taking samples in order to test such patients, the employee will be given one N95 mask, but the employee is expected to use that one N95 mask for an extended period of time and between all of the different patients.

The VA has also instructed its employees on what to do in the event that there are no face masks available. In that situation, the VA says employees should either use a face shield with no mask at all, or the employee should bring their own homemade mask to wear during their shift.

Employees who are at high-risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus are supposed to be excluded from activities that involve interacting with known or suspected COVID-19 positive patients in the event that the adequate amount of PPE is not available.

If an employee has been exposed to COVID-19 and believes they may have contracted the virus, the VA is asking those employees to continue working, as normal, as long as they are not displaying severe symptoms. In that event, the VA says that the employee should wear a face mask while working, report their daily temperature checks, and report their absence of severe symptoms for at least 14 days following the potential exposure.

Despite all of this information, there are still questions as to how the VA system, and the Marion VA in particular, is reporting positive COVID-19 cases.

According to our anonymous source, there have been three suspected positive cases at the Marion VA, but those patients were sent to the Fort Wayne facility, where there is officially four positive cases of COVID-19.

Our source also said that VA employees were instructed not to report any positive cases at the Marion VA to the State of Indiana, however, the source also said that the state finally mandated that all cases within the VA be reported right away.

Aside from the instruction we are told employees are being given regarding PPE and reporting procedures, it’s not entirely clear to us what instructions they’re being given when it comes to actually treating suspected positive COVID-19 cases. However, we did learn that the Marion VA facility is currently using hydroxychloroquine on its patients, which is the same drug President Trump has been touting as a possible treatment for COVID-19. We were only told that the drug is being used, and we have not learned whether or not it has been proving effective.

The information we were able to receive from our anonymous source, in conjunction with the great reporting out of 13 News, shows just how ill-prepared the VA system, particularly the Marion VA facility, was when it came to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. As 13 News and others have pointed out, this information sheds some light on how the federal government as a whole was not prepared for such an event, despite other reporting about the so-called “Red Dawn” emails, which show that the federal government was being warned of a potential pandemic months in advance.

We will stay on top of this story, and we will bring you any additional information or updates we receive here at Channel 27 News.


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