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VA Secretary To Florida Vets: Hang In There For In-Person Care

Department of Veterans Affairs

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie is telling vets anxious to get back to in-person services at local VA facilities to hang in there.

While many civilian health providers have resumed in-person visits, most VA hospitals and outpatient clinics in Florida are still limiting vets to come in for emergencies and certain essential appointments.

For example, Bay Pines VA in St. Petersburg is still not offering elective surgeries, and the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital’s outpatient clinics in the Tampa Bay region are only open for urgent referred appointments.

Higher coronavirus case rates in the state mean the reopening process has moved slower compared to VA facilities in some other parts of the country.

Secretary Wilkie told WUSF that changes could come soon if downward trends in cases continue. But he said the VA has to be cautious. VA patients tend to be older and have health issues, so they're especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

Wilkie said he thinks scaling back routine in-person visits and elective surgeries during the pandemic has saved lives.

“But in response to that, we increased the availability of telehealth across the country and we can do things like dermatology and many medical services through telehealth, the most important of which is mental health,” he said.

Wilkie said in the Tampa area alone, virtual VA appointments increased by more than 3,400% this year.

Nationwide, Wilkie said there are about 2,600 active COVID-19 cases within the VA. The virus has infected thousands more veterans over the course of the year and has killed more than 3,100.

Wilkie is encouraging vets to contact their local VA hospitals and monitor their websites to learn more about what services they’re offering and coronavirus safety precautions in place.

Anyone experiencing distress can also contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255.

Copyright 2020 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.