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Utah Veterans Have Lower Rates Of COVID-19, But VA Healthcare Providers Still Face Pandemic Hurdles

A photo of an emblem of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Renee Bright
The VA Salt Lake City Health Care System has treated about 109 veterans with COVID-19.

Utah is home to nearly 140,000 veterans. And while relatively few have tested positive for the coronavirus — less than 1%, compared to more than 4% of the state’s overall population — veteran healthcare providers have still faced many of the same challenges as others.

The VA Salt Lake City Health Care System, for example, had to shut down non-urgent procedures and open up COVID-19 isolation units, said Cory Pearson, deputy director of the Utah Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. There was also a major outbreak at a long term care center in Salt Lake City, where 51 veterans tested positive for the coronavirus and 13 died.

The VA has also had to limit in-person care, relying more on telehealth services. That can be especially hard for veterans, who tend to face greater mental health challenges after their service, said Jill Atwood, communications director for the VA Rocky Mountain Network.

“A lot of our veterans struggle after military life and the loss of that camaraderie, coupled with an injury that they may have incurred,” Atwood said. “[The pandemic is] a time of isolation and fear. And for many of them, we have to keep reaching out.”

Pearson said the VA began expanding telehealth services a few years ago, but the need during the pandemic has increased dramatically. He said the crisis line in a one-month period before the pandemic received about 90,000 calls, but shortly after the pandemic hit, calls shot up to around 200,000.

“People just didn't know where to go,” he said. “They didn't know who to talk to at first. And so that hotline really picked up calls for people that were seeking information or needed help.”

But while hospitals in Utah are nearing capacity, Atwood said the VA center in Salt Lake hasn’t been forced to send anyone away. The Rocky Mountain Network serves six states in the Mountain West and Oklahoma. Facilities coordinate regularly, she said, and are able to transfer patients, protective equipment and even caregivers between them if needed.

The Salt Lake location is also prepared to accept non-veteran patients, she said.

“We would probably look first to bring any veteran patients in that are in other hospitals,” she said. “But if the state needed us to step in, we would take community members as an overflow sort of situation.”

For now, Atwood said the biggest concern are the VA’s healthcare workers, who are exhausted and face constant fears of catching the virus. They’re also preparing to distribute the first batch of the COVID-19 vaccine, which Atwood said is as close as two weeks away. The first doses would go to frontline caregivers, she said, but high risk veterans will also be eligible before the general public.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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