As the state of Alaska begins lifting coronavirus restrictions, the Department of Veterans Affairs has added a new precaution that requires anyone entering a VA facility to wear a mask. The director of the Alaska’s VA system says the new policy is intended to protect the state’s veterans, a population that he says is especially susceptible to COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
The new policy requiring masks to be worn at all VA facilities in the state went into effect on Thursday. Alaska VA Healthcare System Director Timothy Ballard says agency officials added that to its list of precautions because of ongoing concerns over spreading the new coronavirus.
“Staff, veterans, their family members, friends or what-not – we’re going to continue going through our active screening process where we’re asking about symptoms, but we’re going to require anybody to be wearing a mask,” he said.
Ballard says the VA has for weeks followed those and other precautions recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And it’s made greater use of telehealth and other online and over-the-phone services.
He says agency officials decided to also require masks due to a growing concern that many, perhaps most, of those who’ve been exposed to the coronavirus don’t show any COVID-19 symptoms for weeks – or in some cases, not at all.
“Because of the number of recent asymptomatic folks that were identified,” he said, “the VA has decided to take it a step higher and require cloth masks for everyone in our facilities.”
But the VA’s ability to test vets who aren’t showing symptoms is limited. Ballard said in an online town hall meeting last month that the agency didn’t have enough equipment in Alaska to increase testing.
“We don’t quite have the resources to do that,” he said. “There has been a significant limitation on the number of available testing devices, so we’re trying to conserve our resources as much as possible for that.”
The Alaska VA has been conducting town halls to share more information about the agency's response to the pandemic and other issues. The sessions, which are webcast over social media, have included other Alaska VA officials, like Chad Pomerow, who manages the Veteran Service Center in Anchorage.
Ballard, who’s also based in Anchorage, says the precautions the VA’s undertaken in Alaska mainly are focused on prevention. He says that’s especially important because many more veterans are more likely to contract COVID-19 than the general population, because they suffer from disabilities they developed during active duty.
“Obviously, many types of service-connected disabilities can cause chronic health-care conditions that could make someone more susceptible than the typical population to infections or adversities,” he said in an interview last week.
Ballard says those disabilities also make it less likely that those veterans will respond well to treatment for the disease.
“Clearly, in our population, we’ve got a spectrum of veterans who are at higher risk of having COVID complications that the typical Alaskan,” he said.
But Ballard can’t say for sure how many Alaska veterans have contracted COVID-19, nor how many have been tested, treated, recovered from or died of the disease. He says that’s because many veterans go to non-VA health care facilities, and the agency only can track those who’ve been diagnosed or treated at the VA Anchorage hospital or its five clinics around the state. The agency says those facilities report a total of seven veterans have tested positive for the disease.
“None of those (seven) have been hospitalized and, obviously, therefore none of them have had any complications to the point of perishing.”
Ballard declined to identify the communities where those cases originated, but he says none were from Fairbanks. He says a rough and completely unscientific estimate of the number of Alaska vets who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 could be derived based on the fact that veterans comprise about 10 percent of the state’s population. And because state officials reported Thursday that 372 cases had been diagnosed statewide, it may be that around 37 Alaska veterans have contracted the disease.
Editor's note: This story was revised to attribute comments during the April 16 town hall online meeting about the VA's lack of COVID-19 testing resources to Dr. Ballard.