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South Texas Veterans Health System Set To Open Some Clinical Services

South Texas Veterans Health Care System

As the coronavirus outbreak gained steam in March, the South Texas Veterans Healthcare System limited in-person appointments, reserving them primarily for those with urgent medical needs. Virtual health visits became more commonplace, with patients and practitioners relying on various apps to connect. Many surgeries and procedures were postponed. 

Now, with the epidemic curve flattening in Bexar County, the South Texas VA is slowly resuming certain clinical services.

Christoper Sandles, director of the Audie Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital and CEO of the South Texas Veterans Health Care System said he had given approval for four departments to begin phasing up. 

“You sort of evaluate departments that you feel like are ready and have met the different toll gates,” he said. “So, we're in that process right now. We'll be having regular updates with our region going forward.”

The Phase 1 reopening includes the following areas: 

  • Medicine Service will transition to resumption of limited, non-urgent procedures in outpatient Pulmonary, Gastroenterology and Cardiology at the Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital.  
  • Anesthesiology Service, Pain Clinic will transition to resumption of limited clinical services in interventional pain clinic.
  • Surgery Service will transition to resumption of limited ambulatory surgical care at the contract ambulatory surgical center.
  • Mental Health Prime/Bipolar Clinic will transition to resumption of limited, face-to-face patient care in the prime/bipolar clinic. 

According to South Texas VA spokeswoman Nenette Madla, the above clinical areas were approved based on “their clinical significance to the veterans South Texas serves, and their ability to develop transition plans that met expectations for personal protective equipment (PPE), workspace sanitation, employee/patient social distancing, and continued provision of virtual health to the fullest extent possible.”
Last week the VA’s central office came out with a loose template for reopening facilities around the country. It is predicated on local conditions: a declining number of symptomatic patients, a decrease in those testing positive and widely available testing.

When asked whether the Department of Veterans Affairs had provided specific numeric benchmarks for each category, Sandles answered, “Yes, with some flexibility.”

He said he hoped for an uneventful reopening. 

“We're successful if nothing happens,” Sandles said. “A successful transition is one where we don't have to abruptly curtail services because we see an outbreak of COVID-19. Or because, for some reason, our personal protective equipment (PPE) usage exceeds what we originally anticipated. So, I think a quiet reopening is exactly what we want.”

He added that “within our endemic veteran population, we weren't seeing some of the numbers that were originally projected,” and said the bulk of positive cases were within VA-affiliated nursing homes. 

The reopening process at the South Texas Veterans Healthcare System will serve as an example to other systems throughout Texas, including those in Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Big Spring, Amarillo and the Rio Grande Valley.

Carson Frame can be reached at Carson@TPR.org and on Twitter at @carson_frame.

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Carson Frame was Texas Public Radio's military and veterans' issues reporter from July 2017 until March 2024.