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Ongoing ‘Fourth Mission’ Enabling VA COVID-19 Response

Secretary Denis McDonough addressed the department’s pandemic response and how it will continue to combat the virus by focusing on vaccinations.

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Secretary Denis McDonough
Photo Credit: DAV

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Veterans Affairs has largely contributed to the pandemic response through advanced health solutions like telehealth to continue to support veterans’ care and also by distributing supplies and other support to civilian hospitals. Now VA is looking to the future of the virus, as concerns around emerging variants grow.

“Our VA employees have shown unwavering strength and determination. When personal protective equipment was running low, they invented reusable, 3D-printed PPE and got it straight to the front lines,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said during DAV’s 2021 National Convention in Tampa, Florida last weekend. “When it wasn’t safe for our vets to come to the hospital, they cared for our vets online, ramping up telehealth appointments from 2,500 a day last month to 45,000 per day a year later.”

McDonough added that VA will continue to provide and advance telehealth services because they not only provide greater flexibility, but also enable the department to reach more veterans.

VA has also expanded VEText, an app designed to communicate directly with veterans to manage appointments, following the onset of COVID-19. Since the vaccine became available, VA has vaccinated more than 3.6 million people.

“All of that work translates into one statistic that matters most: lives saved and improved by the work we do today,” McDonough said. “As we all know, our work on the pandemic is far from over. We’ve already lost thousands of veterans to this deadly disease, and now the delta variant is causing an exponential increase in infections, hospitalizations and deaths.”

For many federal agencies, the focus is on the virus’ variants like the delta variant. VA is working to increase vaccination rates, recently mandating vaccination among its employees that directly care for veterans.

Because of the Strengthening and Amplifying Vaccination Efforts to Locally Immunize all Veterans and Every Spouse Act (SAVE LIVES Act), VA can provide vaccination services to all veterans, veteran spouses, caregivers and some civilians.

“The main thing we’re focused on is getting the vaccine we have, which is very effective, including against the delta variant, in the arms of more of our health care professionals and our veterans,” McDonough told GovernmentCIO Media & Research. “We’ll continue to watch closely what the developments are and what the epidemiology of the virus suggests, but at the moment, we’re focused overwhelmingly on getting people vaccinated.”

One of the ways VA responded to the initial COVD-19 outbreak was by activating its Fourth Mission to support national, state and local governments in their pandemic responses.

As of late July 2021, the department has provided the community with personal protective equipment like masks as well as COVID-19 tests in support of this mission. McDonough told GovernmentCIO Media & Research that with the rise in the delta variant, VA could leverage the Fourth Mission to support health care systems through the next wave of the pandemic.

“We’re very proud of our Fourth Mission work. That has included vaccinating our federal partners, vaccinating additional health care providers, supplementing health care providers at facilities that have taken a particularly bad turn as it relates to COVID-19,” McDonough said. “All of those things are things that we have done and will continue to do. We stand ready to help all of our partners, state, local and federal, to make sure that we get through this.”

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