The Department of Veterans Affairs is opening its doors to more non-veterans to help with COVID-19 response.
This time, VA opened 20 beds at its East Orange, New Jersey Medical Center on April 1 to non-veteran patients from other hospitals, both those with critical and non-critical needs. Of those 20 beds, 15 are acute care beds and five are intensive care, VA said. None of the patients transferred so far were being treated for the virus.
The transfer of patients began immediately.
VA already opened 50 hospital beds, including 15 intensive care, at its New York City hospitals.
FEMA, New York and New Jersey asked for VA's help.
VA stepped in as part of one of its four core missions -- to serve as a backup for the American healthcare system if it becomes overwhelmed in times of national crisis. VA has previously activated this mission for natural disasters such as hurricanes or mass shooting events.
VA is part of the federal pandemic response, including FEMA and the Department of Health and Human Services and is expected to respond when asked.
But VA officials said they decided to open the beds in New Jersey and New York only after "determining this action would not negatively impact veteran care."
VA's first and main mission is to provide care for veterans and their families.
“VA is proud to assist the state of New Jersey in the fight against this pandemic while continuing its primary mission of caring for our nation’s veterans,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement. Wilkie has spoken at one White House press conference during the pandemic, but so far has not held any VA press conferences about the virus.
It's unclear how many beds VA has across its sprawling system of medical centers and clinics nationwide because those numbers are kept secret. The last time VA publicly released its capacity numbers, it said it had about 20,000 beds available in 2006. VA officials declined to provide an update on the number of beds available, and VA's COVID-19 plan released last week does not include the figure.
VA also has deployed mobile medical units to New York, San Francisco, New Orleans and Los Angeles -- all areas hit hard by the virus.
In at least one area, VA itself has become overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases so far. VA officials in New Orleans decided to move some non-coronavirus patients from Louisiana to Mississippi because of "capacity" issues.
About half of all VA patients are older than 65, a population at elevated risk for infection, according to the CDC.
VA has a guide for veterans on coronavirus, which includes that veterans who believe they are infected should call their local VA before they show up to the hospital.
As of April 1, VA was tracking at least 53 veteran deaths from the coronavirus and at least 1,602 veterans testing positive nationwide. The department said it had administered more than 16,833 tests across the country so far.