PLAINS TOWNSHIP, LUZERNE COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU-TV) — The Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center received a rare visit from Washington, D.C. this morning.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie took a tour of the facility and Eyewitness News was the only news organization there. Secretary Wilkie’s visit comes as the nation deals with escalating numbers of COVID-19. Eyewitness News spoke with him in an exclusive broadcast interview about navigating veterans here and across the country through this crisis and other obstacles they may face.
On a tour of the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center, US Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie made a point to show appreciation.
“I’m thanking the folks who work here. They’ve taken care of 112 veterans from 19 counties,” Wilkie said.
VA centers, like other long-term care facilities, cater to a population considered most vulnerable to COVID-19. Secretary Wilkie said tough decisions had to be made early to stem the tide of potential infections.
“We had to cut off veterans for instance in our nursing homes from families and friends, probably the toughest decision any of us had to make, because the majority of veterans in our nursing homes are from World War II and Korea,” Wilkie said.
He cited screening and other measures put into place to prevent novel coronavirus from entering facilities and spreading.
“As we speak, of our 134 nursing homes we only have three patients, residents who are positive for COVID. So it has worked,” Wilkie said.
Since taking the post two years ago, Secretary Wilkie has overseen the growth of TeleHealth which provides vets in need virtual medical visits wherever they are. He credits the technology with creating another option to address a chronic problem vets often faced: long wait times for medical appointments.
“The increase in the number of TeleHealth encounters is 25 fold. That is a remarkable achievement. That also means our veterans are responding,” Wilkie said.
Secretary Wilkie also touted the VA’s expanded mental health and crisis counseling programs as well as a first.
“We finally have a national task force that is dedicated to combating death by suicide,” Wilkie said.
As he wrapped up his two-hour visit, he once again commended a dedicated staff that through the coronavirus crisis experienced low absenteeism and a high commitment to help veterans in need.
“They know that they serve the most deserving population of the United States, the population that has guaranteed our freedoms,” Wilkie said.
Eyewitness News also asked Secretary Wilkie about what he hopes to accomplish in the short term. He told me to shore up supplies and services at VA centers like this one in order to brace for a potential second wave of COVID-19.