Stars and Stripes: Lawmakers call on VA to release a vaccine distribution plan

by Nikki Wentling

WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs has not yet publicized a strategy to distribute coronavirus vaccines to its patients and staff once one has been approved, leading some lawmakers to worry that the department has fallen behind states and other federal agencies.

The VA, with 357,000 employees, operates the largest health care system in the United States, oversees nursing homes that care for more than 105,000 veterans and serves a population at disproportionate risk for experiencing severe symptoms of coronavirus. On Tuesday, the department reported about 13,000 active cases of the virus and 4,685 deaths. More than 100,000 VA patients have contracted the virus since the pandemic began.

AstraZeneca announced promising results Monday of its coronavirus vaccine trials, becoming the third drug maker to do so. Health officials have said that once a vaccine is approved and available, the first doses are likely to go to high-risk groups.

Because of the large task facing the agency, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie needs to release a distribution plan that Congress can oversee, said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., in a letter to Wilkie on Monday.

Sens. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii; Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, signed onto the letter with Tester. They argue that the VA is lagging behind other government entities. All 50 states were required to submit their vaccine distribution plans to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in October, and the CDC released its vaccine “playbook” on Oct. 29.

In a public statement Nov. 17, the VA said it was working with the CDC to develop a vaccine plan and had conducted planning exercises in October.

“I understand VA is developing a draft plan on COVID-19 vaccine allocation and distribution, but that it is not ready for release to Congress or the public yet,” the senators wrote. “… I am concerned VA is behind the curve. If the states and other federal agencies have already publicly released their plans, why is the VA lagging behind?”

The VA press secretary did not respond to questions about specifics of the department’s vaccine distribution plan or timing of its release.

The senators also pleaded with Wilkie to combat misinformation that could dissuade people from getting vaccinated.

“Public health campaigns combatting misinformation and building trust in a potential vaccine to reassure veterans, VA staff, and their families would go a long way to meeting the goal of a widely vaccinated population,” the senators wrote.

The senators also asked that Wilkie only move forward with vaccine distribution once one has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Health experts have predicted approval could come within weeks, and a limited supply of vaccinations could soon become available to front-line health care workers.

Referencing President Donald Trump, the senators said, “A tweet from the outgoing president or political pressures should not force a vaccine into distribution before it is ready.”