AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Cases of the coronavirus have now topped 10,000 in the U.S. The U.S. State Department today issued an advisory warning Americans against travel abroad. President Trump announced he's mobilizing FEMA to help with the administration's response.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
And then there are the hospitals preparing for an onslaught of patients, prompting the question, how is the largest health care system in the country preparing? Well, that would be the Department of Veterans Affairs, and joining me now is its leader, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie.
ROBERT WILKIE: Well, thank you. Thank you very much for having me.
KELLY: So let's talk about the network of hospitals that the V.A. runs, which are, of course, there to serve the country's 19 million or so veterans, of whom a big proportion - something like 6 million - are elderly, which is the population most at risk here. Are you prepared to treat a potential onslaught of sick, new patients?
WILKIE: Well, we are. We are an institution that has 170 hospitals and 135 community living centers. We have been preparing for what was coming for a while now.
KELLY: What changes have you already made?
WILKIE: Well, we were the first health system to actually stop people from entering our facilities without being questioned or tested. We were the first health care system to actually curtail - and sadly, we had to curtail visitors to our community living centers, where we have 7,800 veterans who are in acute distress - usually veterans of World War II and Korea, some from Vietnam. And we had to take the hard decision of keeping their relatives and friends out. And then we also stopped elective surgery. We stopped elective surgery a while ago to free up thousands of beds within our system. We have a capacity on a normal day of 12,500, but we're going to increase that.
KELLY: How do you increase that? Is this new facilities, more beds - what?
WILKIE: Yes. We use every available space that we have. Actually, before there was any hint of a national emergency, I freed up our newest facility in Palo Alto, Calif., and turned that into a center that would receive those veterans who have the COVID-19. So we are doing things across the country. We made sure that our supplies were in place. We started doing that at the beginning of February. We are poised for the onslaught. We have not received it yet.
KELLY: If you were so well-prepared and preparing and starting to take precautionary measures back in February, why the disconnect between your department and the rest of the federal government response?
WILKIE: Well, I don't think it's a disconnect. I have a unique institution here. We're almost a military institution.
KELLY: But you heard the message coming from the White House downplaying this for weeks. It sounds like you had a very different message coming out of your department.
WILKIE: Well, because we have to prepare for every contingency, and one of the things we do on a weekly basis - we are constantly training. We are constantly training not only for natural disasters but for pandemics because we are the response force that FEMA can call upon. So we monitor the world. We make sure that, when we see trends emerging, we're on top of it.
KELLY: What has HHS, Health and Human Services, asked you to do so far?
WILKIE: Yes. They have not asked - so in our fourth mission, when the president declares a national emergency, we fall under instructions from HHS and FEMA. Now, HHS's responsibility is to take requests from the governors, and if the governors request us to do something they requested through HHS, then HHS comes to us. We have not seen the governors come online yet. We expect them to do that, and we will respond on a case-by-case basis.
KELLY: And to be clear, when you talk about the fourth mission of being the backup health care system for the country, you're talking about taking care of non-veterans.
WILKIE: Absolutely. When America has, for instance, a natural disaster - last year in North Carolina, we were able to deploy doctors, nurses, engineers and policemen from the Pacific Northwest into North Carolina to augment FEMA's response. In war and in case of natural disaster or an epidemic, we are the surge force.
KELLY: In this crisis, have you surged staffers? Have you moved staff around to different hotspots?
WILKIE: We've not had to yet.
WILKIE: I mentioned in the press conference with the president yesterday we are waiting to see if that surge comes. We will start moving assets around as appropriate.
KELLY: Across the country in general in non-VA facilities, we're tracking doctors and nurses who are getting COVID-19 at a higher rate than the general public for some obvious reasons. What steps are you taking to protect your medical staff?
WILKIE: Well, our medical staff have been given protective gears. The other thing that we do is that we do everything we can to stop people coming into our facility to reduce that risk, and we started a long time ago, which is why we have not seen the same explosion. Now, there's always the chance that someone gets through. But we undertook a very aggressive public health response to this at an early stage, and that has allowed us to prepare more comprehensively than, I think, some of our counterparts in the private sector have been able to do.
KELLY: I do need to press you because you mentioned protective gear. Our correspondent Quil Lawrence, who covers Veterans Affairs, has been tracking complaints moving throughout the system from people saying, we don't have the gear we need...
KELLY: ...To stay safe. Have those complaints reached you, and what are you doing about them?
WILKIE: I will tell you that we talked to all of our hospital and network directors at 7 o'clock in the morning. We talked to them again at 3:30 in the afternoon. Those complaints have not reached us.
KELLY: We're hearing from VA doctors - forgive me for interrupting - VA doctors saying, we're running low on masks already.
WILKIE: I've tried to change the culture to make sure that this is a bottom-up organization, and we have given our employees full power to talk to us, to tell us what they need. Now, I can tell you that the arrangements that we have made on both the masks side and also on the testing side - we're in a very good place.
KELLY: Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie.
Secretary Wilkie, thank you.
WILKIE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.