The number of deaths from coronavirus connected to the Veterans Affairs health system rose more than 80 percent over the last week as department officials updated their public accounting of cases of the fast-spreading virus.
As of Tuesday morning, at least 770 patients had died from complications related to the illness, an increase of 346 cases from April 26. One month ago, on April 5, VA had reported only 103 deaths connected to coronavirus.
Of those total deaths, 582 are inpatient cases at VA medical centers around the country. The rest includes veterans who died at home or at outside private medical facilities.
Across the VA system, 98 facilities have seen at least one death connected to the virus. More than 68,000 Americans have died from the illness in the last two months.
The sharp increase comes amid “enhancements” from VA officials in how they are publicly reporting coronavirus cases, a move which had stopped public announcement of any new patient cases for nearly four days.
In a statement on Tuesday, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the change in department coronavirus reports was prompted by “the accelerating pace of VA’s response to the national emergency” which required creation of “a timely, automated biosurveillance process.” He said the new site shows “all known VA COVID-19 cases that are tested or treated in VA facilities.”
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According to the department’s revamped site, the department was tracking 9,691 cases as of Tuesday morning, an increase of nearly 900 cases from the end of last week.
However, that new figure includes 1,133 cases of VA employees who have tested positive for coronavirus. It also encompasses 432 cases the department classified as “civilians admitted to VA hospitals as humanitarian cases, Tricare patients, active-duty military, and other groups.”
When pressed for an explanation, VA officials did not say if those individuals were included in earlier case counts but emphasized that “patient cases did not drop, they increased.”
The department’s official count of employee coronavirus cases did decrease significantly, however. On April 28, VA publicly reported 2,153 cases among staffers, and 20 deaths.
On Tuesday, the department revised that figure to 1,133 cases and 23 deaths. In a statement, VA press secretary Christina Noel said the new totals only include employees who were tested and confirmed positive at department facilities.
“We found that the previous employee case numbers, which were based on employee self-reports, were likely being duplicated in some cases, which was skewing the numbers high and delaying reporting,” she said. “We’re currently developing a system that will verify employee self-reports to ensure greater accuracy.”
The varied figures on the new VA reporting site put the fatality rate among coronavirus cases at between 8 and 9 percent, well above the national rate of about 5.8 percent for all positive virus reports.
In a statement, VA said the mortality data for their patients “cannot be used to compare VA infection or mortality rates with the community because of differences in population risk, test availability, and follow-up.”
Almost 62 percent of total coronavirus cases within the VA system are already in recovery. Department officials defined that as individuals who are “either post-hospital discharge, or 14 days after their last positive test.”
Five sites have more than 100 active cases: VA’s medical center in East Orange, New Jersey (317 cases), the Harbor Health Care System in New York City (150 cases), the Philadelphia VA medical center (148 cases), the Boston VA medical center (108 cases), and the North Chicago VA medical center (105 cases).
About Leo Shane III
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.