Veterans Affairs officials are warning African American and Hispanic veterans that they may face a greater health risk from the coronavirus outbreak as the total number of positive cases in the department’s health system topped 11,000 over the weekend.
While the number of positive coronavirus tests has risen steadily over the last two months — reaching 11,036 on Monday morning — but the number of active cases within the VA system has decreased each day over the last week.
Currently, VA medical staff is monitoring 2,642 active coronavirus cases among patients, a decrease of about 11 percent from one week ago.
That total includes veterans who use VA health care, VA employees being treated within the system, troops and military family members referred from Defense Department doctors, and civilian patients transferred to VA from overwhelmed local systems.
In recent days, VA officials have sent out warnings through mail and telephone calls that preliminary testing data has shown African American and Hispanic Veterans are testing positive for the fast-spreading virus at higher rates than other veterans.
The Department declined to provide specific data showing the trend. In a statement, VA press secretary Christina Noel said that “while VA’s testing data is not yet statistically significant, we are using it to target outreach to veterans” in an effort to help limit the virus’ impact.
She also noted that the preliminary data also shows that “survivability of COVID-19 in VA care, from the time of testing, does not differ by race.”
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The VA findings echo national trends showing substantially higher risks from the virus for both African Americans and Hispanic Americans.
In a statement last week, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials noted that “New York City” identified death rates among Black/African American persons (92.3 deaths per 100,000 population) and Hispanic/Latino persons (74.3) that were substantially higher than that of white (45.2) or Asian (34.5) persons.”
Nationally, more than 78,000 individuals have died from the coronavirus across the United States.
Within the VA system, the death total reached 869 on Monday morning. That number has doubled in the last two weeks.
About 30 percent of those fatalities have occurred at four New York City area VA medical centers. Across the country, 101 facilities have seen at least one death.
The fatality rate among VA patients who have contracted coronavirus is about 8 percent, well above the national rate of about 5.8 percent for all positive virus reports.
But VA officials in a statement 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.”
In addition to the patient deaths, 26 VA employees have also died from complications related to the virus.
Nearly 1,300 VA staffers have tested positive for coronavirus in recent weeks. In late April, the department reported more than 2,000 cases among employees, but later revised that number down after concerns that some individuals were being double-counted in local facility reports.
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.