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Caring for Veterans during the pandemic

Employees at the Houston VA Medical Center screen Veterans, visitors, and employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Employees at the Houston VA Medical Center screen Veterans, visitors, and employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While a surge of COVID-19 cases is affecting hospitals around the country, the Houston VA Medical Center is staying atop the wave, thanks to preparation and lessons learned since the pandemic began.

“We’re handling it the best we can,” said Dr. Charlie Lan, acting deputy chief of staff and chair of the hospital’s COVID-19 clinician work group.

“We certainly took a lot of steps to be proactive after an initial surge last summer. A lot of those systems we built then have been integrated into our response to this latest surge.”

Still, over the past few weeks the hospital has been experiencing a small increase in COVID-positive patients, mirroring the increase that is being seen in the Houston community.  As of today, there are 24 inpatients who have tested positive for COVID-19 and 28 employees infected with the virus.

While those numbers are higher than what the hospital saw just last month and no one can predict the future, the facility is better equipped now to manage it.

 “Over the course of the pandemic, the medical community has learned quite a bit about how to treat COVID patients,” Lan said. “There is no magic pill, but medical management has become better, and the many preparations we made have really paid off.”

Medical advances

Dr. Bykem Bozkurt, Chief of Medicine at MEDVAMC, agreed, noting that doctors have made great strides in the past eight months in treating patients.

“We have more effective treatment and timely diagnoses, which are preventing some Veterans from having to be hospitalized,” she said.

While COVID-19 is still a serious and deadly virus, Bozkurt said new medications and different forms of treatment have helped curtail both the death rate and the hospitalization rates.

“We have evolving evidence with effective treatment strategies that reduce hospital stay and prevent worsening, she said.  “We have these effective treatment modalities at the VA and have seen favorable outcomes in most of our patients.”

Kelly Irving, Associate Director for Patient Care Services, agreed.

“We’re in a better place than we were in the beginning of the pandemic. If we had seen a high volume of patients in March or April, it would have been really difficult.”

Keeping Veterans safe

As the latest COVID surge sweeps through the national population, the elderly and those with underlying conditions are most at risk.

And while Veterans are disproportionately represented in those groups, Lan said many are taking the necessary precautions.

“Our patient population is among the most vulnerable, but they also tend to be out less at social gatherings,” he said. “And we’re taking extra measures to keep Veterans in a very safe environment at our VA.”

Those measures include:

  • Continuing to focus on emergent and urgent medical procedures.
  • Curtailing gathering areas and creating safe spaces and practices for employees and Veterans.
  • Moving as many appointments as possible to virtual visits via VA Video Connect, all while maintaining quality of care.
  • Aggressively testing Veterans for COVID-19 and implementing strict screening protocols at our entrances.

Infrastructure, equipment

In the spring, the world learned a new acronym – PPE – because so many hospitals and health-care providers were in desperate need of personal protective equipment.

That’s not as critical of a problem now, as hospital officials said the Houston VA is well-equipped with the necessary PPE, while still taking steps to conserve it.

There have been a number of physical modifications to patient rooms, wards and hospital wings to better protect staff and patients.

Screening procedures at the main entrance also have been streamlined and improved. More than 18,000 COVID tests have been performed at Houston VA and our nine community based outpatient clinics since the beginning of the pandemic.

According to Irving, MEDVAMC nursing personnel have stepped up in a big way to care for COVID-19 patients. “Our nurses are on top of COVID….they better understand the trajectory of the illness and are much more comfortable in their ability to predict and do appropriate assessments.  We’ve seen the science evolve, and now a vaccine is on the horizon,” she said.

“We’re handling it the best we can,” said Dr. Charlie Lan, acting deputy chief of staff and chair of the hospital’s COVID-19 clinician work group.

“We certainly took a lot of steps to be proactive after an initial surge last summer. A lot of those systems we built then have been integrated into our response to this latest surge.”

Still, over the past few weeks the hospital has been experiencing a small increase in COVID-positive patients, mirroring the increase that is being seen in the Houston community.  As of today, there are 24 inpatients who have tested positive for COVID-19 and 28 employees infected with the virus.

While those numbers are higher than what the hospital saw just last month and no one can predict the future, the facility is better equipped now to manage it.

 “Over the course of the pandemic, the medical community has learned quite a bit about how to treat COVID patients,” Lan said. “There is no magic pill, but medical management has become better, and the many preparations we made have really paid off.”

Medical advances

Dr. Bykem Bozkurt, Chief of Medicine at MEDVAMC, agreed, noting that doctors have made great strides in the past eight months in treating patients.

“We have more effective treatment and timely diagnoses, which are preventing some Veterans from having to be hospitalized,” she said.

While COVID-19 is still a serious and deadly virus, Bozkurt said new medications and different forms of treatment have helped curtail both the death rate and the hospitalization rates.

“We have evolving evidence with effective treatment strategies that reduce hospital stay and prevent worsening, she said.  “We have these effective treatment modalities at the VA and have seen favorable outcomes in most of our patients.”

Kelly Irving, Associate Director for Patient Care Services, agreed.

“We’re in a better place than we were in the beginning of the pandemic. If we had seen a high volume of patients in March or April, it would have been really difficult.”

Keeping Veterans safe

As the latest COVID surge sweeps through the national population, the elderly and those with underlying conditions are most at risk.

And while Veterans are disproportionately represented in those groups, Lan said many are taking the necessary precautions.

“Our patient population is among the most vulnerable, but they also tend to be out less at social gatherings,” he said. “And we’re taking extra measures to keep Veterans in a very safe environment at our VA.”

Those measures include:

  • Continuing to focus on emergent and urgent medical procedures.
  • Curtailing gathering areas and creating safe spaces and practices for employees and Veterans.
  • Moving as many appointments as possible to virtual visits via VA Video Connect, all while maintaining quality of care.

Aggressively testing Veterans for COVID-19 and implementing strict screening protocols at our entrances.

Infrastructure, equipment

In the spring, the world learned a new acronym – PPE – because so many hospitals and health-care providers were in desperate need of personal protective equipment.

That’s not as critical of a problem now, as hospital officials said the Houston VA is well-equipped with the necessary PPE, while still taking steps to conserve it.

There have been a number of physical modifications to patient rooms, wards and hospital wings to better protect staff and patients.

Screening procedures at the main entrance also have been streamlined and improved. More than 18,000 COVID tests have been performed at Houston VA and our nine community based outpatient clinics since the beginning of the pandemic.

According to Irving, MEDVAMC nursing personnel have stepped up in a big way to care for COVID-19 patients. “Our nurses are on top of COVID….they better understand the trajectory of the illness and are much more comfortable in their ability to predict and do appropriate assessments.  We’ve seen the science evolve, and now a vaccine is on the horizon,” she said.

Keep wearing your mask

And while hospital officials said they are optimistic about recent news of vaccines’ effectiveness, they know it will be months before a vaccine is available for the general population.

“The vaccine will come, and we already have a team working on how to distribute that,” Irving said.

Until then, the messaging is the same, Irving said – wear a mask and eye protection, social distance, don’t gather in large groups, wash your hands often and get a flu shot. 

“We are asking patients with appointments to arrive no more than one hour prior to their appointment and to wear a face covering over their mouth and nose at all times while in our facilities,” Irving said.   “We want our Veterans to know the VA is open and here for them. We consider it an honor and privilege to provide top quality care to our nation’s heroes.”

And while hospital officials said they are optimistic about recent news of vaccines’ effectiveness, they know it will be months before a vaccine is available for the general population.

“The vaccine will come, and we already have a team working on how to distribute that,” Irving said.

Until then, the messaging is the same, Irving said – wear a mask and eye protection, social distance, don’t gather in large groups, wash your hands often and get a flu shot. 

“We are asking patients with appointments to arrive no more than one hour prior to their appointment and to wear a face covering over their mouth and nose at all times while in our facilities,” Irving said.   “We want our Veterans to know the VA is open and here for them. We consider it an honor and privilege to provide top quality care to our nation’s heroes.”

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