The Coast News: Congressman Levin discusses pandemic response with San Diego Veterans Affairs director

April 16, 2020
In The News

REGION — Medical treatment and financial assistance for veterans during the COVID-19 pandemic were the main focuses for Rep. Mike Levin’s (D-San Juan Capistrano) April 8 virtual town hall.

Since March, Levin has been hosting weekly virtual town hall discussions every Wednesday with local health professionals from the 49th district.

Throughout his town halls, Levin has maintained that there are currently two related crises happening right now: the public health crisis and the financial crisis. The best way to deal with the financial crisis, he has said, is by tackling the public health crisis.

On April 8, Levin hosted Dr. Robert Smith, director of the Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System, to answer questions from constituents about what the VA is doing for its veteran patients throughout the pandemic.

According to Smith, the VA has taken a number of steps to ensure they can respond to COVID-19 cases in addition to federal, state and local guidelines.

The VA has reduced face-to-face visits by more than 75% in addition to canceling most procedures and surgeries that are not urgent and have instead shifted toward increasing “telehealth” and virtual checkups. Smith said the VA is a leader in telehealth due to its focus on a population that is spread out across the country with some patients who don’t live near a facility or clinic.

“We and others have been very aggressive in trying to make sure that we have all of the resources at hand that are necessary to take care of patients as they come in with coronavirus,” Smith said.

One constituent asked what the VA is doing in terms of mental health at this time. Smith highlighted that the VA has already been doing “tele-mental healthcare” and have found it effective, particularly for veterans with extreme post-traumatic stress disorder who may feel uncomfortable being around others.

“Being able to provide that care in their own homes was really a gamechanger,” Smith said.

Smith also advised people to call the VA’s mental health crisis line (1-800-273-8255) if they help immediately.

Testing turnaround times for COVID-19 have improved dramatically since a few weeks ago, Smith noted. Previously results weren’t coming back until four to seven days after a test was taken; now turnaround times are one to two days at the most.

“That’s not just unique to the VA,” Smith said. “All healthcare systems have been ramping up their testing capacity.”

According to Smith, the VA has tested more than 500 patients in the San Diego area for COVID-19. As of April 8, 22 veterans have tested positive.

Another constituent asked if buying fresh food like produce and bread from grocery stores, as well as buying takeout food, is still safe.

Smith explained that the virus spreads from droplets that are coughed or sneezed into the air. If those droplets get on hard surfaces made of plastic or metal, they can condense and the virus can remain on those surfaces for a while until disinfected.

Droplets can’t dry as fast on paper and cloth materials, which denatures the molecules thus not allowing the virus to persist as easily. This is also true for food surfaces, Smith said, though he recommended still rinsing off certain produce and washing hands before and after.
In addition to emphasizing following health guidelines and orders regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, Levin has also been working in Congress to try to bring relief to those affected financially by the crisis.

Besides supporting the CARES Act, which will provide stimulus checks to eligible citizens across the country, Levin has also been advocating for expanding unemployment, Paycheck Protection Program support for small businesses to keep staff on their payroll and furthering coverage of healthcare costs related to the crisis.

Currently, COVID-19 tests costs are covered regardless of a patient’s insurance status, but not necessarily treatment. That is a “sore subject” for Levin.

“I think all your treatment should be covered completely,” Levin said, referring to treatment for COVID-19.

In terms of veterans, Levin supported a bill that was signed into law in late March that guarantees student veterans will continue to receive GI Bill benefits while switching to online courses due to the outbreak.

The House also recently passed the Student Veteran Coronavirus Response Act of 2020, which would continue paying work-study allowances and subsistence allowances during emergency periods for student veterans. Levin said he hopes the bill will go through the Senate and be signed into law quickly.

Levin also recently released a “COVID-19 Resource Guide” on his website for constituents to provide basic information about response programs and to answer frequently asked questions. The guide includes information about direct payments and expanded unemployment insurance, Small Business Administration resources and the Payment Protection Program.