PHOENIX — The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is ready, able, and willing to help handle a surge in the number of COVID-19 cases throughout Arizona. It was the primary message from Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, who spent the day Monday touring the Phoenix VA Health Care System.
Secretary Wilkie announced that the VA hospital in Tucson has already opened its doors, not just to veterans, but to the entire community. He said one of the missions of his agency was to step in and help in event of a national crisis. They are prepared to do the same in Phoenix if needed.
"We have opened up our hospitals across the country. New York, New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago, Tucson, and, more importantly for this area, we have expanded our reach into the tribal nations," said Secretary Wilkie.
He added that VA hospitals started setting up tents outside their hospitals to handle an influx of COVID-19 positive patients much earlier than other hospitals in the country.
The tents set up at the Phoenix VA health care system have beds, if needed. However, staff said right now they are being used as overflow areas to treat patients with other medical emergencies. While case numbers are rising in Phoenix, they have not had to use the tents for COVID-19 patients yet.
Nationwide, Wilkie said of the 9.5 million veterans they serve, they have seen 18,000 infections. Of those veterans, 14,000 have already recovered.
In Arizona, Wilkie said 200 veterans have tested positive for the coronavirus, along with 40 employees in their hospitals and clinics.
Staff said employees who tested positive were sent home to recover until they were cleared to return to work. Secretary Wilkie also added that all employees are monitored for symptoms every day.
"Temperature checks, questions, that is the triage before anyone even steps into this facility. Can you see this green arm band I am wearing? I have received this because I went through that here today," said Wilkie.
The agency has also been monitoring the number of veteran suicides amid the pandemic and said there have been no significant increases. Secretary Wilkie credited that to a big expansion in tele-health services offered by the VA. It is the way staff can check in on veterans to make sure those who are vulnerable are not overwhelmed by a feeling of isolation, depression, or stress.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has also announced their support for the Suicide Prevention 988 Expansion initiative. It is a new national three-digit emergency telephone number that allows people to access crisis call centers across the country for suicide prevention and mental health services. It is set to be in place by July 2022.
“The 988 three-digit number will help Veterans and non-Veteran callers quickly access help in times of crisis and open the door to engage new individuals in life-saving care,” said Secretary Wilkie. “The Veterans Crisis Line will continue to remain available 24/7, 365 days a year, by calling 1-800-273-8255 and pressing 1.”
Once activated, the 988 Expansion will also grant VA the opportunity to collaborate with the suicide prevention community across the United States.
Right now, if you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, contact the Veterans Crisis Line to receive free, confidential support and crisis intervention available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, text to 838255, or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.