Lawmakers, veterans call for end to COVID restrictions at VA hospital

WILKES-BARRE TOWNSHIP, LUZERNE COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU) — Fighting for those who fought for our freedom. Veterans, lawmakers, and community members gathered Tuesday to discuss the pandemic-imposed policies in place at the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center.

28/22 News has covered this story since the beginning of the pandemic. While the federal government declared an end to the COVID crisis last month, those 28/22 News spoke to say policy change at the VA is long overdue.

More than a dozen veterans gathered at Miller’s Ale House in Wilkes-Barre Township. They were joined by fellow veteran and Pennsylvania Treasurer Stacy Garrity, who hosted a meeting about the Wilkes-Barre VA’s policies.

“Because I served for 30 years in the army reserves, deployed three times, and so I know the difficulties of coming back and PTSD and the struggles that our veterans go through and it’s incumbent on all of us to jump in, raise awareness and demand that the Wilkes-Barre VA lift their COVID restrictions,” said Stacy Garrity, PA Treasurer.

Garrity says Vietnam support groups have not been able to have their meetings at the VA since March 2020. Vietnam veteran Don Wilmot has been going to group therapy since ’98 and says the sessions have immensely helped him with PTSD.

“Every day you run into different triggers, and you have to discuss things. You can’t discuss them with your brother or somebody else who hasn’t been there in combat and experienced it,” described Wilmot.

A statement issued to 28/22 News by a spokesperson for the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center reads in part, “The economic, social, and emotional disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic has touched us all, in one way or another, but it has not been allowed to compromise the safe, reliable and effective care that the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center provides to our veterans each and every day.”

Veteran Joe Kudrick says his fellow vets are his only family, and the sessions changed his life when he came back from Vietnam.

“Before that, I was off the wall. And now I think I’m back to normal, but I still need that reinforcement with the groups. We want our group back,” stated Kudrick.

28/22 News reached out to officials at the Department of Veteran Affairs in Washington DC for additional comment.

Read the full statement from the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center Spokesperson below:

“The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania is committed to prioritizing the delivery of safe and reliable care to the Veterans that we serve. Although the COVID pandemic impacted operations and care delivery modalities, it did not mitigate our responsibility to our Veterans or diminish the level of care that they were provided.”  

Throughout the entirety of the pandemic, the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center has followed Veterans Health Administration national guidance which is based on Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations and protocols.

In April 2023, Wilkes-Barre’s Community Living Center (CLC) moved to Phase 3 of the Moving Forward Plan affording residents increased opportunities for off-site recreational outings. However, throughout the pandemic, there were provisions to support personal activities.

Wilkes-Barre’s Substance Abuse Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Program (SARRTP) Veterans are subject to therapeutic program goals.  Treatment is based on elements of healthy recovery, which may result in limited social interaction at appropriate sober outing locations.  These considerations are rooted in evidence-based therapies, rather than a result of the pandemic.  

Although Wilkes-Barre’s CLC is currently operating with scheduled visitation, there has not been a single incident where a Resident has been denied visitation as a result of scheduling requirements.  The staff has always accommodated all requests, including last-minute and spontaneous requests for visitation.  

The Scranton Vet Center, in collaboration with Wilkes-Barre’s Mental Health and Behavioral Medicine Service, is hosting Vietnam Veterans Support Groups.  The meetings are facilitated by Licensed Mental Health Providers, providing specific therapies in secure neighborhood locations across the catchment area, to encourage community integration which is vital to the therapeutic process.  

The economic, social, and emotional disruption of the COVID-19 Pandemic has touched us all, in one way or another, but it has not been allowed to compromise the safe, reliable, and effective care that the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center provides to our Veterans each and every day.”