On May 20, 2020, at 6:45 a.m., as staff members corralled themselves through the temperature checkpoint station at the Mississippi Veterans Home in Kosciusko, some showing up for their shift and some leaving, they saw two familiar faces and several dozen doughnuts at a table set up in the hallway.
Stacey Pickering, executive director of Mississippi Veterans Affairs (MSVA) and Dr. David Walker, medical center director of the G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery VA Medical Center (VAMC) in Jackson, were there bright and early to say “thank you” to the shared VAMC and MSVA staff of who were taking care of the 135 patients, 38 who had tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus.
Both agree that it has taken the two agencies working together for the last three months, using shared ideas and resources to fight a global pandemic for the sake of the veterans in Mississippi.
“We work together regularly during normal time periods, because our goal is the same, and that’s to take care of the 187,000 veterans in the state of Mississippi,” Pickering said.
However, in mid-March, when the COVID-19 virus started surfacing in Mississippi, the two agencies, along with other federal and state counterparts, began daily communication on how to posture and respond if and when the virus affected their patients and residents.
When COVID-19 hit the MSVA Home in Kosciusko in the middle of May, Pickering made the ask to the VAMC for staffing after three weeks of buckling down using internal staff, agency transfers and the use of staffing agencies. When the Mississippi Department of Health instituted 100% checks of all nursing homes in Mississippi, 29 staff and 25 residents in the Kosciusko home tested positive. Those employees were not allowed to come into the home for 14 days because of the possible exposure to other staff and residents.
Pickering said it was important to respond early to the staffing crisis based on the delayed response from other states.
“In other states, they were having to transfer patients out of the veterans homes because of the severity of the virus and the availability of staff, and we wanted to get ahead of that,” he said.
The VAMC provided front-line nursing staff in Kosciusko so that the infected staff could recover, and offer a well needed break to staff who needed a breather. Dr. Walker said that all of the VA staff that has been provided to the Kosciusko home volunteered to take the assignments.
In addition, the VAMC has also provided consultation and training to MSVA staff on proper wearing and removal of required personal protective equipment. They provided infectious disease training to evaluate how MSVA was mitigating the spread of the disease in Kosciusko and preventing the disease in the other three homes in Oxford, Jackson and Collins.
Pickering said that the other three MSVA Veterans Homes remain COVID free.
The VAMC participates daily in a “sync” call with the MSVA staff, where Dr. Thomas Forks, medical director in Kosciusko, can share information with fellow VA physicians in the ICU who are taking care of transferred patients. The VAMC also provided a geriatrician to do video consultation and visits with COVID and non-COVID patients.
Dr. Walker says that the daily communication is critical because the coronavirus is a novel virus, or a virus that we have never been exposed to.
“We are learning medically about this virus every day, so medical consultation is critical in all settings.” Walker said.
Pickering describes the response to the COVID-19 pandemic very similar to a Department of Defense response in a joint-environment where Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines would be working jointly on the same mission while utilizing interagency partners for mission accomplishment.
“You have MEMA, and FEMA providing resources, the (Mississippi) State Department of Health has done testing for us, while providing guidance and assistance,” Pickering said. “We also talk to the state medical officer on a daily basis as well as our own national and federal counterparts.”
“This has been a great example joint-partnership between federal, state, and local leadership.”
Release from MS Veterans Affairs.