I-Team: VA union workers share concerns, medical director responds

I-Team

LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Employees at the VA are sounding the alarm, saying they are concerned about work conditions and how the VA is handling COVID-19.

According to a spokesman, 27 employees have tested positive for the coronavirus at the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System.

“We’ve had a number of issues where protocols have been blown, and we’ve exposed people to it,” revealed Robert Olson of AFGE Local 1224.

While the VA said many of those cases were from community spread, a group of union leaders and representatives aren’t convinced.

“Many of the staff of those 27 are not involved in any direct patient care whatsoever,” stated William Caron, medical director for the Southern Nevada VA.

While employees brought up several concerns, he called this facility one of the safest places in the city.

“You can’t get onto this campus or into a building without having your temperature taken,” explained Caron. “Everyone is wearing a mask, the universal masking. We have PPE access, utilization, the aggressive cleaning and sanitation, the contact tracing, the multi-modal communication that we put out there.”

The I-Team asked if there were concerns about protocol not being followed and putting patients at risk, to which Caron replied:

“No. At this point, we have not seen any evidence of that.”

Employees noted that PPE was being reused.

Caron said while there was some initial confusion about the handling of masks, it was addressed. Masks are reused only if they are in good condition to preserve the supply.

Another concern brought up was testing. Employees said they believe the VA should test workers who may have been exposed to the virus.

Caron said testing is mainly limited to workers with confirmed exposure and symptoms.

Telework is yet another issue.

“We have elderly people who have pre-conditions. They have high blood pressure, they have all these things, and they are still coming to work,” said Linda Ward-Smith, AFGE Local 1224 president. “That’s a concern for me, and because there are still managers that are allowing them to come to work, knowing that they have these conditions when they could telework, concerning to me.”

Caron said out of 2,800 employees, 800 are deemed eligible to work from home, and 450 are doing so. He admitted there was a hurdle with technology.

“On the initial rollout, I remember the Citrixx was a challenge for some people. And obviously, if you don’t have technology to work, then we would ask you to come back on campus,” Caron said.

Union workers also pointed to a lack of communication from “higher ups,” while Caron said he’s been transparent from the start.

In March, the first known case of COVID-19 was treated at the VA hospital in North Las Vegas.

Caron said staff working in direct patient care were “obviously in the loop right away.” He noted within that 24-hour timeframe, he wrote a direct email to staff, and two town halls were held.

These are two different views of what is unfolding at the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System.

“While I’m disappointed in the few staff members that may feel slighted, we are following CDC guidelines and guidance from above and communicating that on a regular basis,” said Caron.

Ward-Smith had a differing opinion, “Stating, ‘oh, we have no issues. Everything is fine. We have enough PPE. We have enough telework. All those things, they’re lies … It’s time to expose a lie.”

Some of those union members work in a separate office building. They said they were not notified about a COVID-19 positive employee. Caron noted he is not in charge of that building.

The I-Team reached out to the VA for a response, and a spokeswoman wrote:

“VA follows CDC guidelines regarding employee safety.”

When we inquired about the hospital’s first known case, she replied, “Due to privacy concerns, we cannot confirm that.”

The union plans on protesting tomorrow morning at 6:20 outside the North Las Vegas VA medical center on Pecos near 215.

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