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VA's Telehealth Appointments Have Doubled Since The Shutdown In March

VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs ramped up hiring for full and part-time positions in Pennsylvania back in March, just in case there was a surge of COVID-19 patients.


On today's program: The U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs shares challenges facing veterans during the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19; changes to a Federal Reserve loan program could help oil and gas companies; and as Pennsylvania reopens, workers with pre-existing conditions fear the call to go back to work. 

VA sees success in PA where nursing homes remain mostly safe
(00:00 — 9:32)

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says its pandemic response plan is working, despite a 20 percent increase in COVID-19 cases at its health care facilities during the last week of April.

Secretary Robert Wilkie says 9,000 veterans have contracted the virus nationwide, and more than 6,300 have completely recovered. However, 611 veterans have died in their hospitals, including three at the Pittsburgh VA Medical Center. Local VA officials have reported 53 total cases. Wilkie says 26 of those patients have recovered, and officials are "following" the symptoms of another 37 people.

Like other hospitals, the VA halted many scheduled, non-emergency procedures in March and ramped up hiring nationwide. With many in-person wellness visits postponed, veterans doubled the use of its telehealth virtual system, from about one million appointments to two million in the last month alone.

Some workers at VA medical centers in Pittsburgh and elsewhere say personal protective equipment is being rationed. Wilkie says no VA facility has ever run out of PPE, but he acknowledged that in some cases the equipment was reused.

“I made sure those who are in the emergency rooms, in the COVID-19 wards—they had protective equipment. Was I able to give people who had no contact with patients three changes of protective equipment a day? No.”

Wilkie says efforts to control the virus have been especially successful in the VA's 134 nursing homes nationwide, where he says all 8,000 residents have been tested and currently 21 have the virus.

Changes to the stimulus program could help shale companies in PA
(9:37 — 14:07)

When the Federal Reserve first rolled out its Main Street Lending Program, it prohibited companies from using the loans to pay off debts. The loans were intended to help small and midsize companies from going under during the pandemic. But oil and gas companies and their advocates asked the central bank to loosen up those guidelines so that they could use the money to pay off debts. The Federal Reserve changed the rule in late April, allowing oil and gas companies to do just that. 

For StateImpact Pennsylvania, the Allegheny Front’sReid Frazier reports that some are calling the changes a stealth bailout for the oil and gas industry and question whether they make sense from an environmental or economic standpoint.

Workers with preexisting health conditions fear a call to return to work
(14:11 — 20:57) 

With restrictions in Allegheny County and more rural parts of the state loosening this weekend, some businesses are preparing to reopen. That means people who were laid off due to the coronavirus are being told to return to work, and among them are people living with a wide range of health problems that put them at a higher risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19. 

WITF’sBrett Sholtis reports these workers face a choice: risk losing their jobs or their lives.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago. kgavin@wesa.fm
Julia Zenkevich is a general assignment reporter for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at jzenkevich@wesa.fm.
Megan Harris is a writer, editor, photographer and curator for Pittsburgh's NPR News station. She leads editorial coverage for The Confluence, 90.5 WESA's live, one-hour, daily morning news show.
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