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U.S. Secretary of VA: What I learned about Utah’s COVID-19 response during my visit

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie speaks to reporters at the VA Medical Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. Standing with Wilkie is Shella Stovall, director of the VA Medical Center, left, VA Rocky Mountain Network Director Ralph T. Gigliotti, and U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

My recent visit to Utah reminded me once more how Americans in the West take life at their own pace. Residents here are surrounded by natural beauty and have enough elbow room to enjoy it.

Utah’s smaller population is likely what spared it from the initial wave of COVID-19. But as we head into the fall, cases are rising in the Beehive State.

After my tour of the George E. Wahlen Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC), I can say that VA is absolutely prepared — not only to care for veterans, but to care for others in the community when local health systems are stressed.

Here’s what I learned.

The Salt Lake City Health Care System is operating under a seven-phase surge plan that’s creating the capacity to care for COVID-19 patients. That plan will take the facility up to 207 inpatient beds if needed, including 57 “negative pressure” beds that are designed to prevent the spread of the virus, and intensive care unit beds.

The VAMC I visited has boosted staff by hiring more than 300 employees since the pandemic began, including 41 nurses who are already assisting patients and another 28 nurses who are about to come onboard.

The staff extended its time and resources as much as possible by moving to virtual care. From January to July, the Salt Lake City VA saw more than a 100% increase in the use of telehealth services.

The VAMC in Salt Lake City isn’t just using telehealth to keep patients connected during this time of social distancing — it’s the hub for mental health services in the region that covers Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Montana and most of Colorado, Oklahoma and Wyoming.

Staff there launched a VA Video Connect “university” that is training health care providers on how to connect with their patients virtually. These three-day classes are promising to bring care and comfort to veterans who otherwise would be isolated.

One of those veterans is Max Rasmussen, who served in the Vietnam War like my father. He told our staff that telehealth is saving him a three-hour drive to the VA and lets him get the care he needs at home.

“When I’m able to do everything here, it’s worth a million dollars every time,” he said.

VA is part of the community, and it’s ready to serve more than just veterans.

So far this year, the George E. Wahlen VAMC has cared for 22 veterans from the state-run nursing home, as well as three of their spouses. The facility is running COVID-19 tests for the National Guard and is coordinating with Gov. Gary Herbert’s office on the COVID-19 response.

VA staff have already deployed around the country to help veteran and non-veteran COVID-19 patients and are prepared to deploy again when doing so won’t hinder their primary mission of helping veterans.

In May, VA respiratory therapist Eduardo Cardenas served in New Orleans for a month to aid patients there. He recalled to us the time he treated a Veteran with COVID-19 for two weeks and then thanked that veteran for serving his country, only to have that veteran tell him, “thank you for your service.”

“That feeling was very strong for me and made me feel very proud of what I was doing,” Eduardo said.

Like Eduardo, employees at the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System are also proud of the role they are playing during this unique time, and they stand ready to do more.

Robert Wilkie (@SecWilkie) is the 10th Secretary of the Department Veterans Affairs