Veterans Affairs chief McDonough outlines agency’s vaccination efforts

Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough on Thursday outlined the administration’s efforts to vaccinate the nation’s veterans and other work to care for veterans amid the pandemic.

Veterans, McDonough said, “have been severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.”

More than 230,000 veterans in the VA’s care have been infected by Covid-19, with 10,605 deaths, but as of Thursday, 1.4 million veterans have been vaccinated, with over half having gotten both vaccines, McDonough said during the White House press briefing, adding that equity has been a priority.

He said that the vaccination scheduling process for veterans is “actually working pretty well” amid concerns nationally about the difficulties in scheduling. There has been direct outreach from the VA to those who are qualified.

Pressed on overlapping resources with contacting and outreach between the VA and other health care providers, he acknowledged there could be some overlap, but said: “We are very efficiently moving veterans who qualify through the system.”

The biggest challenge for his department as of now is still having enough vaccine supply and there has not been the vaccine hesitancy they expected, McDonough said.

“We have more demand right now than there is supply,” he said. “We’re surprised that hesitancy is less than we feared,” noting that he anticipates it could become a problem moving forward.

Allotted VA vaccines are in arms “within two to three days” after they have been developed, calling the VA “very efficient” and suggesting they hope that “as there’s extra, that it comes our way,” according to McDonough.

Pressed by CNN’s Phil Mattingly on the crisis of mental health and suicide amid the pandemic, McDonough called that a “major priority.”

Demand for mental health services is up on the telehealth platform, he said, indicating that the stigma is being reduced but there is still too much. The VA is working with providers and local communities to have a good sense of at-risk veterans and are establishing contact.

McDonough also warned about the crisis of deferred care, noting that 19 million VA appointments have been changed, canceled or deferred as a result of the pandemic, which is impacting Americans more broadly during the pandemic.

He added that the Veterans Benefits Administration is also helping veterans with the economic crisis, working to avoid eviction and foreclosure, among other services.

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