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VA Hospitals Staffing Up In Anticipation Of COVID Surge


The Department of Veterans Affairs is ramping up hiring for full and part-time positions throughout Pennsylvania to ensure hospitals are fully staffed in case there’s a surge of COVID-19 patients.

Medical workers are more likely to contract coronavirus because they have frequent contact with very sick COVID patients. Donald Koenig, director of Pittsburgh’s VA health system, said that’s part of the reason facilities are hiring as many registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and nursing assistants as possible.

“Many of them will be trained and be in a ‘standby’ situation,” he said. “We’ll bring them in to get comfortable. But we may not need to have them suddenly coming and working a 40-hour workweek until things unfold a bit.”

Some of these new VA employees might include retired nurses, as the Pennsylvania Department of Health recently relaxed certainlicensing requirementsto allow people to return to the medical workforce. Also, health care organizations have started to layoff or furlough employees as the halt of elective procedures leads to a shortfall in revenue.

In addition to health care workers, the VA is also looking to recently laidoff hospitality workers to staff hospitals’ housekeeping, food service, and security departments.

“We can use every available hand to help sanitize, clean and disinfect,” said Koenig. “We think that’s a great opportunity for folks from the hotel industry. Same with hotel kitchen staff and hotel security staff.”

A federal employees union filed a lawsuit late last month in an effort to increase salaries for workers who are at higher risk for contracting coronavirus.

"In accordance with Federal regulations, some VA employees may receive additional pay for the performance of hazardous duty or duty involving physical hardship. Such determinations are made on a case-by-case basis by agency managers, in consultation with occupational safety and health experts," said a statement from the national VA.

Nationally, there are concerns the VA lacks enough protective equipment for staff, though Koenig said the Pittsburgh VA has adequate supplies. 

Another large health care system, UPMC, did not directly answer whether it needed to hire additional employees, but said it has, “plans for any scenario that will allow us to identify staff, skills, and needs to ensure that all staffing needs are met.” The health care provider also said that employees will continue to be paid at their current rate for normally scheduled hours through May 9, “Even if they are assigned to alternative work during their regular hours.”

Allegheny Health Network did not respond to requests for comment.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.