The Department of Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic in Lewiston. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Healthcare for Maine veterans has not suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic, says Tracye Davis, the medical center director at VA Maine.

While resources and some staff have shifted to new roles to meet demand, the system, which includes Togus and several outpatient clinics throughout the state, including Lewiston, has suffered no furloughs or layoffs and in-patient treatments continue for cancer patients and other veterans with urgent needs.

“There have been no discontinuity of care with cancer treatment,” Davis said. “We continue to do infusion therapy, our oncology department has been working very closely with our radiology department to make sure that any diagnostic procedure required is done timely.

“At this time, we have not seen any impact to morbidity or mortality 0f our cancer patients related to our COVID-19 response,” Davis added.

Like everyone else in the health care industry, VA Maine has made some adjustments, following guidelines from its experts and others in the field, in how it treats patients, such as adding virtual care whenever possible.

“We have restricted access to our campuses,” Davis said. “We do screenings at all of our facilities and we’ve really worked to reduce, as much as possible, any face-to-face visits and move more toward virtual care when that’s appropriate.”

Following guidance from the American College of Surgeons, VA Maine is delaying elective procedures, similar to other hospitals. Any procedure that is not considered urgent or if the delay doesn’t place the health of a veteran at risk is currently on hold.

VA Maine prepared for a surge of patients if the state became a hot spot. It increased the capacity of its negative pressure room, which Davis said is the ideal environment for COVID-19 patients. Staff received additional training and some were shifted to cover the extra beds, if needed.

An external triage unit was set up near the emergency department to test patients. The tents were provided and set up by the Maine National Guard.

The surge, fortunately, never came, According to Davis, VA Maine has treated 15 veterans for COVID-19 and nine of those have recovered. Togus currently has no in-house patients with the virus. The others have received outpatient treatment or are in a community-based nursing home.

The Maine CDC has reported one death at Togus.

One area of increase need is answering phone calls, which has increased in the past couple of months, administrative staff and others were shifted to phone duty to cover the increase. While some job duties have changed, no one in VA Maine has lost his or her job due to the pandemic.

“All of our employees are essential workers,” Davis said. “We have not furloughed or laid off anyone. There are no plans to do that as part of the COVID-19 response because we have work for all of our employees to do.”

The VA community based outpatient center in Lewiston remains open to treat veterans. Face-to-face visits are limited to protect veterans and healthcare workers, urgent outpatient care is still being conducted at the center.

The Lewiston center is still doing labs, radiology, ultrasound, injections, optometry and treating any crisis mental health issues in a face-to-face setting, Davis said.

“We’ve tried to be very flexible, and we do recognize that during this very scary time, we have veterans who may not feel comfortable coming into the facility,” she added.

The next test for VA Maine is establishing a reopening plan, which Davis admits hasn’t been figured out yet.

“VA Maine is actively looking at how we’re going to reopen and what is that going to look like,” Davis said. “What needs to be in place in terms of our phased implementation to ensure the safety of our veterans and of our staff. We’ll be making decisions on reopening in partnership with other VA facilities in New England as well as the VA central office in Washington, D.C.”

A potential backlog of cases and care needs of veterans could strain the system when the crisis ends.

“We do not yet have a full assessment of that,” Davis said. “It will all depend on when we begin our phased implementation of reopening, but again I want to emphasize that we have continued to do emergent and urgent procedures.”

“There’s no playbook for the COVID-19 response,” she added. “Their ability to quickly adapt, quickly mobilize, to take care of each other, to take care of our veterans, it makes me so proud.”


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