Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 1,000 Veterans Health Administration staff have volunteered for more than 3,700 deployments to support Veterans and civilians in the most hard-hit areas of the country.
Volunteers deploy through VA’s Disaster Emergency Personnel System (DEMPS), VA’s main program for deploying clinical and non-clinical staff to an emergency or disaster elsewhere in the country. The all-volunteer assignments vary in skillsets, geographic locations and length of time for the support.
Many volunteers deploy multiple times
Sophia Didley, a nurse manager at the Perry Point VA Medical Center in Maryland, has deployed three times through DEMPS.
Didley, a 24-year Air Force Veteran, went to Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria. More recently, she deployed to assist with the COVID-19 response at the Menlo Park Veterans Memorial Home, a state Veterans home. She also deployed to the Waters Edge Healthcare Rehabilitation Center, a private rehabilitation facility, both in New Jersey.
Didley (pictured above) describes the DEMPS experience as similar to the military in the sense that you are volunteering at any given moment to go anywhere in the world, or in the case of DEMPS, the country.
These VA employees put aside their fears, leave their homes and families, and volunteer where they are needed most – to support their colleagues while caring for Veterans sick with COVID-19.
No truer definition of paying back Veterans for their service
“Most of the time your family is proud of you and fearful at the same time,” Didley said. “My friends were my cheerleaders. I was proud to be helping with this pandemic.”
To date, VA personnel have deployed to more than 49 states and territories to support VA medical centers with surges of COVID-19 cases and to provide support to state and community nursing homes.
VA staff are currently deployed to facilities and Federal Emergency Management Agency regional response coordination centers across Arkansas, California, Delaware, Idaho, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
Ruth Ortiz, a respiratory therapist at the Gainesville VA Medical Center in Florida, has also been on three DEMPS deployments – all three in this year alone. At the beginning of the year she went to Puerto Rico for earthquake relief. Later in the year she traveled to New Orleans and then San Antonio for COVID-19 relief.
“You’re not really sure what you’re walking into when you get there,” Ortiz said. “Once you are presented to the department where you’re going to work, you’re given your assignment and you’re oriented and basically you hit the ground running. For New Orleans and San Antonio, I was working in their COVID ICU. So that was a very new and challenging experience for me.
“The DEMPS program is a very rewarding program. It is going to take you out of your comfort zone. It’s going to be a challenge, but it’s going to be a very rewarding challenge. You’re going to use your skills and your knowledge in any type of critical care setting you might come into. It is just an amazing experience to be a part of.”
VA’s Fourth Mission – assisting the nation
Since its inception in 1997, the DEMPS program continues a long history of service and support. It has grown in scope and complexity. DEMPS volunteers deployed to New Orleans in response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They also deployed to Puerto Rico in response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012. For a period of four months in 2017, DEMPS deployed more than 1,200 staff in response to hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.
The state and community support is provided as part of VA’s Fourth Mission to assist the nation in times of emergencies and disasters. During the pandemic, VA has supported states with direct patient clinical care, testing, education and training. We have provided more than 908,000 pieces of personal protective equipment, including gowns, gloves, masks, face shields and other resources. As part of Fourth Mission humanitarian support, VA has also admitted 376 non-Veteran citizens for COVID-19 care at VA medical centers.
Rachael Burden is a communications specialist in the Office of Media Relations within the VHA Office of Communications.