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South Texas VA Wants To Avoid Another COVID-19 Pandemic Shutdown

Photo courtesy of South Texas Veterans Healthcare System
The Audie L. Murphy VA Medical Center as seen from above.

The South Texas Veterans Healthcare System is trying to avoid a broad shutdown as the COVID-19 pandemic waxes and wanes.

With the advent of the novel coronavirus in March, the South Texas VA — along with other VA facilities around the country — postponed many face-to-face appointments to prevent the virus from spreading.

In recent weeks, some of its departments began offering routine clinical appointments again, but in a limited way. Now with coronavirus hospitalizations trending upward, the South Texas VA has begun to reevaluate its reopening and staffing plans. 

On June 19, the system reported that 18 COVID-positive veterans have been admitted to Audie Murphy Memorial VA Hospital, the highest number of COVID inpatients in the VA health care system nationwide. That number jumped to 23 on Monday, and to 27 on Tuesday. 

While the South Texas VA isn’t yet facing problems with ICU capacity or staffing, CEO and medical center director Chris Sandles is looking ahead.

“We're not there yet,” he said. “We've got quite a ways before we get there. But I think it's our job to do what we can to prepare if it were to get that serious.”

The South Texas VA treats more than 100,000 unique veterans, and more than 200 have been confirmed as having COVID-19. One of Sandles’ tasks is to balance the welfare of the broader patient population with those who are acutely ill with coronavirus. 

For now, that means continuing in-person visits  — and other forms of routine care — when possible.

“We want to be certain that those who've already had care delayed don't have additional delay, unless it is absolutely critical that we do that,” Sandles said. “We're going to do everything we can so we don't have conditions that were previously elective… become urgent or emergent.”

Even with coronavirus cases increasing, he said he doesn’t want to revert back to a severe shutdown. In coming up with plans for its recent reopening, he added, the South Texas VA “built in some flexibility” to account for possible coronavirus resurgences.

The system will continue to see patients face-to-face as scheduled this week. However, it won’t expand services any further until more is known about the coronavirus spread in the community. Sandles said he’s weighing how many staff should go to help acute patients — and how many should be assigned to more routine care.

“Before we put more strain, intentionally, on outpatient areas, we want to reevaluate that,” Sandles said. “We're kind of in cruise control for at least another week to decide if we go forward with transitions (resuming services) or start looking at pulling folks back to acute care.”

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

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