May 28 (UPI) -- Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie on Thursday defended the VA's response to the coronvirus pandemic, denying allegations that a lack of safety equipment endangered veteran patients and staff.
Wilkie, appearing in person before a House appropriations committee panel, said the VA's workforce was never put in jeopardy by shortages of personal protection equipment while battling the COVID-19 outbreak.
"We never ran out," he said, reiterating the VA's consistent denials of accusations brought by hospital workers who say critical protective items such as masks and gowns are in critically short supply.
"We are well-stocked with supplies," he said. "On average, VHA has a minimum of two weeks' supply on hand of each type of PPE -- gloves, eye protection, masks, gowns and hand sanitizer -- within most facilities."
"Hundreds" of veterans and 31 VA staff members have died from COVID-19, he said, but insisted that the VA "began carefully managing" its supplies of PPE and other medical equipment "while there were still less than 50 confirmed cases in this country."
Still, he said the VA's supply chain had been disrupted and said the agency is now "looking for ways to prevent that from happening again in the event this thing boomerangs back in the fall."
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., questioned Wilkie's claims, saying the VA rationed safety equipment for staff directly treating COVID-19 patients.
"We expect VA to provide enough PPE to every single person working at a VHA facility and patients, when necessary," she said.
She also criticized Wilkie for the VA's continuing use of the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19. The drug, touted by President Donald Trump as effective against the virus, has not been endorsed by federal health officials and has been linked by researchers to deaths and heart risks.
"What is astounding to me is the VA is still insisting on providing this drug to veterans," Schultz said.