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Veterans turning to telehealth amid coronavirus restrictions

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX — The restrictions related to COVID-19 are harming veterans’ mental health more than the virus itself, according to the the nation’s top Veterans Affairs official.

Restrictions at VA facilities have kept the coronavirus mostly at bay, but the virus has still killed veterans throughout the United States.

“Sadly, we have lost about 3,100 veterans across the country,” Robert Wilkie told KTAR News 92.3 FM on Wednesday.

VA hospitals nationwide are treating 380 patients with COVID-19. The department serves 9.5 million veterans.

Wilkie says his hospitals are at 60% of normal tempo, so veterans are turning to telehealth.

“In a normal month in America, we do about 40,000 mental health tele-appointments,” he said. “Since the pandemic kicked in, we’re doing about 900,000.”

Veterans are getting remote access to doctors, nurses, counselors and therapists.

“We’re happy with that. It’s an easier way to contact us in the comfort of their own homes and their families’ homes,” Wilkie said. “We’ve been able to make up for that face-to-face deficit that we have experienced.”

Outside of the coronavirus pandemic, veterans and their families ordinarily use facilities for more than treatment.

“You go into the lobby of any VA hospital, you will probably see a lot of folks there who don’t have appointments,” Wilkie said. “They’re not going to see anybody (for treatment). They are just there to talk to people who have shared what they have shared.”

The isolation is taking a bigger toll on the 7,500 veterans living in VA hospitals, where the median age is 91.

“We had to deprive them of visits of families and friends,” Wilkie said. “In so doing, we are able to protect them as well as protect our own staffs.

“It’s tough, but we only had four patients in our nursing homes who are positive for COVID. It has worked.”

The hospitals are providing phones, computers and regular mail for patients and families to use.

Wilkie wants the VA hospitals to slowly — but safely — draw back its restrictions based on outbreaks in various locales.

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