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Federal investigation launched as Veterans Affairs lifts restrictions on masks for health workers

Veterans Affairs hospitals have faced a major strain since the outbreak began.

Hundreds of VA medical center employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and eight have died after contracting the disease, according to the department.

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The OSHA investigation comes as VA supervisors continue to reassess their equipment stockpiles amid nation-wide shortages.

"All VA facilities are equipped with essential items and supplies, and we are continually monitoring the status of those items to ensure a robust supply chain," Veterans Affairs press secretary Christina Noel said in a statement to ABC News on Tuesday.

Although department leaders have denied equipment shortages, an email from the director of VA's health care system -- obtained by ABC News -- acknowledges a prior department policy of only providing one mask to employees each week unless they had direct contact with a confirmed COVID-19 patient.

VA now appears to be increasing the number of health workers that are allowed protective masks. All employees at VA community centers and special care units will receive one mask each day, Veterans Health Administration chief Richard Stone said in the Wednesday night email to VHA employees.

“Let’s not forget that the VA has been claiming throughout this pandemic that our members on the front lines have the PPE they need,” American Federation of Government Employees President Everett Kelley said in a statement. “Beginning to change course, admit the issues, and address the problem with a policy change is a good start from the agency, but our members on the ground need to actually get the PPE in their hands.”

Press Secretary Noel confirmed on Thursday the agency had been conserving PPE more strictly until now. She said the agency had been following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that all health centers use "contingency strategies" to conserve equipment.

"VA's PPE conservation posture is precisely why the department has not encountered any PPE shortages that have negatively impacted patient care or employee safety, Noel said Thursday. "What's more, VA today was able to return to a contingency -- rather than crisis-capacity posture for PPE use."

The federal agency entered the crisis with severe staffing shortages and vacancies at its highest ranks. VA's hospital network reported more than 44,000 vacancies at the end of 2019, raising questions about its preparedness to handle the coronavirus crisis.

In a letter to Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday, House Democrats on the Veterans Affairs Committee said the White House had blocked VA from disclosing its protective equipment policy.

"These additional bureaucratic delays have created a logjam in which the documentation we have repeatedly requested has not been provided, and the lack of specificity in VA's ongoing briefings for the Committee, not only poses risks of potential harm to veterans, but also leads us to a simple conclusion -- your administration has hamstrung VA's ability to ensure Congress is fully informed," the Democrats wrote in the letter released by committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif.

What to know about coronavirus:

  • How it started and how to protect yourself: coronavirus explained
  • What to do if you have symptoms: coronavirus symptoms
  • Tracking the spread in the US and Worldwide: coronavirus map