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13 WTHR Indianapolis | Indianapolis Local News & Weather

Roudebush VA working to reduce employee infections as COVID numbers spike

Roudebush represents 3 of the 64 VA employee deaths nationwide attributed to COVID.

INDIANAPOLIS — The surge of COVID cases across Indiana is impacting our veterans and those who care for them.

It's drawing attention to the state's largest VA hospital, which was recently cited for OSHA violations, for failing to protect workers at the beginning of the pandemic.

Safety regulators have their eyes on the Roudebush VA Medical Center and for good reason.

Nationwide, more than 4,000 veterans have died and COVID cases are spiking.

On Veterans Day, Roudebush reported 743 total cases since the pandemic began: 121 cases were considered active, including diagnosis for 105 veterans, 15 employees and a civilian admitted as a humanitarian case. Roudebush also reported 60 COVID deaths since March. At least three of those deaths were employees.

It's troubling because Roudebush represents three of the 64 VA employee deaths nationwide attributed to COVID.

"I knew one of the three guys who died... fairly well. He was a great person," said Mary Jean (M.J.) Burke.

Burke is a physical therapist at Roudebush and a union representative for AFGE NAVC, the American Federation of Government Employees National VA Council. The group represents nearly 260,000 VA workers on both the national and local levels. One of the union's main priorities is worker safety.

"I knew something was amiss fairly early on," she told 13 Investigates, referring to the lack of PPE provided to Roudebush workers during the initial outbreak.

Months later, she said she got proof administrators had launched a so-called "conservation campaign" on PPE.

"Only mask the patient, and then all of a sudden people started getting infected. And then it came to mask the health care workers, mask the clinical people," Burke said describing the inconsistency in protection.

Simply put, Roudebush administrators put limits on who could get PPE and left intake and administrative workers largely unprotected.

"It led a lot of people to say, 'What the heck is going on here?'" she recalled.

Burke and others sent what they knew to the U.S. Department of Labor and OSHA.

In September, Roudebush was cited for two serious violations.

In an OSHA report, inspectors said the "Roudebush V.A. Medical Center had not ensured employees used PPE, such as... surgical masks and face shields to protect against contracting Covid-19."

Richard Griffith, who was in charge at the time, has taken exception to the violations.

In a statement he told 13 Investigates: 

"The OSHA reviews are misleading because they attempt to judge nine-month-old actions that occurred at the start of the pandemic by current COVID-19 standards."

But 13 Investigates learned concerns over Roudebush also went to Congresswoman Susan Brooks (R-Ind.). Brooks is the co-chair of a working group targeting problems at VA facilities.

According to her press secretary, Savannah Kerstiens, "Rep. Brooks had a virtual meeting to hear an update on their COVID-19 response."

Griffith said the medical center has worked to follow CDC guidelines and reports progress.

"During the pandemic...employees have provided life-saving care to more than 600 COVID patients while adhering to safety practices that have limited its current COVID employee infection rate to zero," he revealed.

"We have as an organization — we have improved a lot. I mean just a lot," Burke added.

Now, a new COVID outbreak could put those improvements to the test and ultimately determine if the changes went far enough.