Memorial Day is traditionally a time to honor dead members of the armed forces. But this year, the COVID-19 pandemic has emerged as a new war for many veterans.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is reporting 908 confirmed cases of the virus among veterans and VA staff in Illinois, 158 of which are active cases. The VA also reports 36 deaths.
“We have a high population of patients who already have lung disease and kidney disease, amongst other conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, vascular disease. All of these co-morbidities do put them at greater risk of severe illness if they do contract COVID,” said Dr. Sarah Unterman, chief of staff at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago.
As with other medical providers and systems, COVID-19 has caused significant changes to how VA hospitals and clinics operate in the Chicago area.
“We redeployed the locations of our ICUs, to be able to make one ICU for COVID patients, and then one for non-COVID patients, and then one could be flexed depending on what the need was,” said Dr. Jeffrey Oken, deputy chief of staff at Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital in the western suburbs. “We also made a negative airflow ward, to treat the COVID patients … having a specialized room to enter so that appropriate PPE could be placed before going into the room.”
Both Oken and Unterman say their hospitals have shifted much of their outpatient treatment to telehealth, either via phone or video calls. They say for the most part, it’s been a success — albeit with some trial and error.
One roadblock, Oken says, is patient access to necessary technology like video conferencing software and a stable internet connection.
“Those can sometimes be barriers, on the veteran’s side,” he said. “On the provider side, our providers actually are well tuned into this.”
And Unterman says there have been some cases where patients seeking mental health treatment miss the experience that group settings offer.
“We’ve had feedback from some of our patients involved in groups that they don’t connect as well as other members of their group when they’re not in person, so that has been a challenge,” she said. “In general, our patients have been very grateful for the opportunity to still continue their care without needing to put themselves at risk by coming to the medical center in person.”