The recent story about a Roseburg VA Medical Center nurse who traveled to New Orleans in April to help the VA there during the COVID-19 pandemic drew the attention of officials there.
A spokesman for the New Orleans VA told The News-Review it painted an inaccurate picture of conditions there, such as the numbers of staff who were absent due to the pandemic and the percentage of ventilated patients who died.
But the nurse, Ben Busey, stands by his account. He told us he gave us an accurate description of what he saw during his two weeks there and what he was told by other healthcare workers on his unit.
Busey is part of the Disaster Emergency Medical Personnel System, or DEMPS, a VA program that assigns healthcare workers to places suffering the health impacts of crisis events. He had originally expected to be sent to New York to help with the pandemic there, but was instead assigned to New Orleans. At that time, the city of New Orleans was even harder hit by the pandemic than New York.
When Busey arrived there, he found himself working on a unit that was mostly made up of healthcare workers from outside New Orleans. He also said he was told that many staff members were out due to COVID-19, either because they had contracted the illness or were at home awaiting test results.
Phil Walls, the New Orleans VA spokesman, said the characterization that “many” staff were out, or that the staff had been “decimated” is inaccurate. He said fewer than 10% of the staff have been out at any given time, and that 186 staff members, some of whom are in administrative positions, have tested positive in the past three months. That figure included 87 of the facility’s 500 nurses.
Busey said 10% sounds like an enormous number to him, and the percentage of ICU workers like himself who were out was likely higher than the overall percentage.
That would be consistent, he said, with the fact that ICU workers are at much higher risk of contracting COVID-19.
For comparison, the Roseburg VA hospital previously told The News-Review it has had four staff members test positive for the disease.
Walls said 129 people were brought in from other VAs. He said the ICU needed additional staff but that was because it had expanded capacity not because of a staff shortage. The number of ICU beds had been increased from 24 to 56.
Busey called that semantics. It’s still a staff shortage if you don’t have enough staff to meet the need, he said.
Walls said overall, 37 of 65 intubated COVID-19 patients died, a lower figure than Busey’s 80-90% estimate.
Busey said while he was there, though, coworkers told him 30 of the 33 intubated patients they’d had at that time had died. He noted that the survival rate improved later.
Walls also disputed Busey’s account that the unit he was in ran out of body bags the day before he arrived and that the facility had a mask shortage. But Busey stands by his account, adding that he personally supplied a bag to another unit that ran out and that employees were reusing each mask they received for more than a week.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the New Orleans VA Healthcare System has reported 535 confirmed COVID-19 patients to date and 44 deaths attributed to the disease. That places it in fourth place for number of cases and fifth place for number of deaths among VAs nationwide.