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Slowly And Cautiously, The VA Is Reopening Its Medical Clinics

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Medical facilities run by the Department of Veterans Affairs are reopening at a slower pace than many civilian health systems. But the VA has recently started to expand in-person care.

Speaker 1: 00:00 The department of veterans affairs health system is welcoming more patients back after months of tight restrictions due to COVID-19. But VA clinics are reopening at a slower pace than many civilian health facilities from Tampa, Stephanie Colombini reports for the American Homefront project.

Speaker 2: 00:20 You won't see rows of parked cars on the first floor of the Tampa VA's parking garage. Instead hospital beds, computers, medication carts, and an x-ray machine. The pandemic has affected the way all health centers operate. But this is one of the few that's moved. Most of its emergency department, outside patients with issues like a sprained ankle can actually receive treatment in the garage and never have to step foot inside the hospital. Dr. Timothy McGuirk runs this operation.

Speaker 3: 00:49 The goal of setting up this out here was to protect our very vulnerable patients inside. And our staff

Speaker 2: 00:57 Tampa stands out even among other VA medical centers with its parking garage set up, but all of the agency's facilities are taking steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Well, many civilian health facilities have allowed patients to come in for routine care for months and even opened up for visitors. That's largely still off limits at many VA's McGurk says VA patients are typically older and sicker than the general population making potential outbreaks, more dangerous.

Speaker 3: 01:25 They have heart disease, they have kidney disease. They have lung disease that makes them more at risk. Plus, we don't have any pediatrics here. We don't have young, healthy people for the most part

Speaker 2: 01:36 62 year old Navy veteran, David toodle pulled into the garage with severe back pain because of the pandemic has other doctor's visits lately have been remote

Speaker 3: 01:45 Telephone, but not video. I'm not techno like that.

Speaker 2: 01:51 While the VA has increased virtual care by about 1500%, since March many veterans have been anxious to return to face to face visits, some outpatient and specialty clinics that were shut down for months have gradually started welcoming patients who need hands-on procedures or can't use virtual care down the block from the main hospital. The Tampa VA's audiology clinic is offering drive-up hearing aid, repair army reserve veteran. Michael Kelly pulled up in his car and a staff member wearing a mask and gloves asked him to hand her his hearing aid through the window. And you give me your last one is I think I need to change the tubing on that real quick at 80 Kelly says he's very concerned about getting COVID-19 and is grateful for the drive-up.

Speaker 4: 02:34 There's no contact. And, uh, I feel very safe.

Speaker 2: 02:38 This was a rare outing for Kelly. He spent most of the year home with his wife. Yeah.

Speaker 4: 02:42 You know, you, you feel confined, but, uh, we're following the rules basically. Hopefully it'll be all over soon, but you don't know.

Speaker 2: 02:53 Coronavirus cases have spiked in many parts of the country and among VA patients, Paula Myers, chief of the Tampa VA is audiology section says she's not ready to ease. Restrictions. Season is just around the corner. Bars have just opened in our community. Um, we don't know if there's going to be a huge second wave all of a sudden. So while we have this process that veterans finally know is this is how it is for right now. We want to sustain that for right now. VA officials say, despite the need for caution, it's important, veterans don't avoid care. They encourage vets to stay in touch with their providers to ensure they get the help they need. I'm Stephanie Colombini in Tampa.

Speaker 1: 03:38 This story was produced by the American Homefront project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans funding comes from the corporation for public broadcasting.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.