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Coronavirus cases double at Miami veterans' hospital while mask concerns rise

Miami Herald - 4/3/2020

Apr. 3--With more coronavirus test results rolling in, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among veterans at the Miami VA hospital has almost doubled to 33 as of Friday, according to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs records.

About half of those patients are being treated at the downtown Miami VA hospital and the other half are quarantined at home, records show.

The Miami VA hospital now equals the Orlando VA facility, also with 33 positive COVID-19 patients, for the most coronavirus infections in Florida. There are seven confirmed COVID-19 cases in each of the VA facilities in West Palm Beach, Tampa and Gainesville.

Statewide, 93 veterans have tested positive for the viral disease, up 30 percent since early Thursday.

That figure, however, represents only less than one percent of the total confirmed COVID-19 cases statewide, according to Florida Department of Health records. As of Friday morning, there have been 9,500-plus positive test results and more than 160 deaths in Florida due to the highly contagious respiratory disease..

The 372-bed Miami VA hospital, which serves 58,000 veterans in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties, has reported the death of one patient in his 90s since the coronavirus outbreak began in Florida in early March.

In addition to veterans, four staff members at the Miami VA have tested positive for the viral infection, according to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Mary Kay Rutan in Florida. But, citing privacy concerns, she declined to break down which types of staff -- doctors, nurses or other healthcare personnel -- have been infected with the virus.

Rutan said that "the employees are all in isolation, mitigating further risk of transmission to other patients and staff."

Rutan issued a statement asserting that the veterans' healthcare system has been preparing for the coronavirus outbreak since late January and is gearing up to meet the escalating threat on all fronts, from medical supplies to testing to screenings.

"The VA has robust procurement and inventory processes in place to ensure medical center needs are met," the statement said.

The Miami VA hospital was among dozens of veterans' facilities nationwide cited by a federal inspector general for failing to maintain adequate equipment and supplies, including critical N95 masks for healthcare workers. The reality is, hospitals in and outside the VA system are reporting shortages of the N95 masks as well as traditional surgical masks.

On Monday, Miami VA officials started requiring employees to use surgical masks for one week, unless they are treating patients with COVID-19 or their masks become soiled. In those instances, they can ask supervisors for a replacement.

"These masks are expected to be used for a week at a time, longer if possible," Miami VA Healthcare System Director Kalautie JangDhari told staff in an email Sunday that was updated with the same message Wednesday. "Masks may be removed while eating or drinking, but must be immediately put back on."

Despite the new policy, Miami VA healthcare workers say surgical masks are not as thick or effective as the N95 masks that were found to be in short supply at the hospital by federal inspectors during a visit last month. The director's emails did not address that shortage issue, nor did a VA hospital spokesperson respond to a Miami Herald request to comment about it.

One employee, echoing the sentiment of others contacted by the Herald, said the new policy was a "joke" because the surgical masks are intended for a single use and soil quickly, running the risk of spreading the coronavirus.


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