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DANVILLE — As Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System moves into 2021, it is ramping up administering COVID-19 vaccines, continuing construction on additional community living centers and an in-patient mental health care building, and looking back on a difficult year.

“Early into the pandemic, I would say we were mildly affected,” medical center Director Shawn Bransky said of the virus. “We didn’t have a lot of veterans in our population locally that were affected directly with high rates.

“As time went on, we did go into a big surge that we’re coming out of now, but we’ve handled that well.”

Bransky said many of the veterans who contracted the virus “have come out of that.”

The VA began administering the Moderna vaccine in December.

“Receiving the vaccine is like having hope delivered,” Bransky said. “As vaccine supplies increase, our ultimate goal is to offer (the vaccine) to all veterans and employees who want to be vaccinated.”

While the VA’s main facility is in Danville, it covers 30 counties and operates community-based clinics throughout central Illinois. It recently opened a Bloomington clinic.

Some 40,000 veterans are enrolled in the system.

“We’re always looking for veterans not enrolled in our health care system,” Bransky said. “We encourage veterans not enrolled to please reach out to see if they are eligible for health care.”

Bransky said the system employs 1,500 and is looking to add about 370 more for nursing and medical support assistance, which is administrative staff.

“During the pandemic, there have been some veterans impacted with health insurance” issues, Bransky said. “There will be a greater reliance on VA health care, so we will continue to hire aggressively well into (this) year.”

On the construction side, ground was broken on two more community living center small homes, which will bring the total number of those facilities to six. Four more will be built later.

The 10,000-square-foot homes will house 10 veterans each.

“They are very modernized, beautiful accommodations that are really reflective of the sacrifices our veterans have made,” said Bransky, himself a 21-year Air Force veteran.

Veterans living in long-term care will be moved into those homes. It is hoped they can begin moving in there in February and March.

The new 20-bed, 17,000-square-foot mental-health care facility will replace the VA’s current mental-health unit inside the 1965 building.

The state-of-the-art facility will offer “a very healing environment for veterans,” Bransky said.

A March opening is targeted.

Another construction project, which has been completed, is a new safety and security fence.

“Given the fact we’re a federal facility, we have a requirement to maintain safety and security,” Bransky said.

A VA focus will be the reduction of veteran suicides. Bransky said the system will continue its aggressive outreach in an attempt to get the suicide number to zero.

“At any point, particularly with the challenges of COVID, we’re always here for those that are in crisis and need to reach out for immediate support,” Bransky said.

The national veterans crisis line, available around the clock, is available at 800-273-8255, Ext. 1, or by sending a text to 838255.

Veterans are also able to use a “keep-me-informed” tool, which enables them to enroll in a communication link regarding COVID-19 vaccinations, at va.gov/health- care/covid-19-vaccine/stay-informed.

“It’s a good way to keep our veterans informed,” Bransky said. “They can also go on our Facebook page and (other) social media.

“The tool pushes through email and text, or they can always call our central number, 217-554-3400, and stay abreast of information. Or those connected with veterans services organizations can provide information.”

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