EXCLUSIVE: U.S. VA Sec. Wilkie defends hydroxychloroquine use, details pandemic response

U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie | Source: AP Photo / Richard Drew
U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie | Source: AP Photo / Richard Drew(KALB)
Published: May. 27, 2020 at 2:49 PM CDT
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The United States Department of Veteran Affairs is working to stem the spread of the coronavirus. The VA’s top official says their early response curved the outbreak and kept people safe within their facilities nationwide.

“We started screening before anyone else in the country,” United States Veteran Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie said during an exclusive interview with News Channel 5 on May 20.

“We stopped elective surgeries, we stopped visitors,” he said. “We have weathered the storm."

The Secretary said out of the nine million veterans in the country, about 10,000 became infected with COVID-19 and more than 1,100 died. He also said more 7,000 recovered.

In the state of Louisiana, most of the victims suffered from hypertension or high blood pressure. Also, African Americans make up more than half of the overall deaths in the state.

Sec. Wilkie said the VA is taking steps to respond to minority veterans and those with pre-existing conditions.

“We made a study in underlying conditions. we've helped in many ways with our outreach,” he said. “We've sent out tens of millions of communications... not just in English but in other languages as well.”

He said the VA plans to take a deeper look at the groups affected by COVID-19 once the pandemic is over.

They’re also looking at a growing mental health crisis. In March, mental health-related telehealth calls from veterans increased by nearly 400 percent.

“Instead of 40,000 telehealth calls, we had 154,000,” the secretary said.

Wilkie said his administration is turning to technology to ensure “no one is left behind” especially in rural communities.

“We have distributed tens of thousands of tablets to veterans so they can use it to contact use whatever they are.”

The secretary also commended the reliance of his staff working through the stress to keep veterans and their families safe.

“We have a much lower absentee rate this year than last year,” he said. “They are cognizant of the risks but they are responding them in a way that we would expect for an organization that is dedicated to the military.”

To help treat some of the patients, VA doctors are using the malaria prevention drug hydroxychloroquine. The drug has been touted by President Trump but many studies suggest it could do more harm than good.

According to NBC News, The World Health Organization stopped trials of hydroxychloroquine because of the potential dangers.

Some veterans who were treated with the drug died after taking it while some who did survive. But, Sec. Wilkie is defending the use of the drug saying the department followed federal health guidelines.

“If someone is in dire straits, we will do everything we can to preserve and protect life and prolong life,” he said. “We followed FDA guidelines and those guidelines allowed doctors to offer that and in that case that you're talking about most of those veterans were in the last hours of life. We tried as much as we could to offer them a chance and that's what we did."

Sec. Wilkie said the VA started using hydroxychloroquine in 1955. They’re also testing the use of other drugs like remdesivir, a drug used during the Ebola outbreak.

Health experts are warning of a second wave of the coronavirus, but Sec. Wilkie said the VA will be ready and are continuing to plan events like Veterans Day in November.

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