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VA Prepares for COVID-19 ‘Aftershock,’ Offers Additional Support Services

VA’s acting deputy secretary discusses new innovations to support veterans and how VA will prepare for a post-COVID world.

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The Department of Veterans Affairs is continuing to drive COVID-19 response efforts to support veterans and minorities, and is bracing for the “aftershock” of the pandemic, said Dr. Carolyn Clancy, VA’s acting deputy secretary.

“Our health care providers continue their herculean efforts in their relentless fight against the pandemic. Because of them, we’re seeing very promising signs: more people getting vaccinated, fewer reported infections and, very importantly, fewer reported deaths,” Clancy said during ACT-IAC’s 2021 Health Innovation Summit.

In late May, VA reported that, for the first time in 14 months, no veteran in VA health care facilities died of COVID-19. During the height of the pandemic, the department reported a high of 36 deaths per day. This is a major milestone, Clancy said, and it is because of the efforts made by the health care community.

Clancy outlined notable contributions from health care providers and innovators that have supported veterans throughout the pandemic, including:

  • VA teams collaborated with the Veterans Health Administration innovation ecosystem to produce a Powered Air Purifying Respirator, or a PAPR hood, to protect health care providers and ease pressure on the national supply chain.
  • Richmond’s VA Assistive Technology Team invented the clear talker mask to assist veterans with hearing loss. These masks have enabled veterans to lip read and in turn improve communications.
  • VA expanded VEText, an app designed to communicate directly with veterans to manage appointments, following the onset of COVID-19. VEText helped screen approximately 14 million veterans and schedule nearly 250 million vaccination appointments.

“It’s critical that we do everything we can to empower our people, unleash their ingenuity, unify their efforts and therefore expand their capacity,” Clancy said.

COVID-19 also highlighted some of the inequities within the health care system. Clancy noted that 12% of veterans are African American, yet African Americans make up 46% of veterans with positive COVID-19 tests.

“Our VA medical center in Madison, Wisconsin, found that up to 75% of minority veterans were unvaccinated. The African American Special Emphasis Program and clinical pharmacy specialists reached out to minority veterans to offer personalized vaccine education,” Clancy said.

One of the ways the VA was able to respond so quickly to the pandemic was the department’s digital transformation, which was already underway prior to the onset of COVID-19. While VA’s modernization priorities helped the department rapidly scale, “COVID-19 forced us into the future by five years,” Clancy said.

Moving forward, VA will focus on enterprise-wide cloud faxing, which will help support the health care environment by increasing security, efficiency and document sharing. Advancing cloud capabilities will also enable VA to decrease time and dollars spent.

VA has also made major strides in expanding access to telehealth. Prior to the pandemic, VA had approximately 25,000 telehealth visits per month. Now, the department routinely hits more than 45,000 visits per day.

“Since March 2020, we’ve conducted more than 10 million telehealth visits, nearly 800,000 in May 2021 alone,” Clancy said. “That’s not going away even once COVID might.”

However, VA is preparing for a surge of veterans that will come into facilities for in-person visits for surgeries and physical examinations. In addition to deferred care, VA is also expecting to see a rise in mental illnesses.

“We’re bracing for a simmering mental health epidemic in the wake of the pandemic,” Clancy said. She noted that it is vital to integrate mental health providers into patient aligned care teams to respond to the “aftershock” of the pandemic.

“We’ll continue to depend on [health care providers] … for the miracle of pushing the envelope of research, innovation and technology that improves the human condition,” Clancy said. “The best innovations will be tightly linked to the folks who deeply understand what the needs are in an operational context.”

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