Deaths among coronavirus patients within the Veterans Affairs health system rose almost 6 percent overnight — pushing the total for the last two months to nearly 1,000 fatalities — while the number of active cases being treated dropped nearly 6 percent in the last day.
The starkly different markers for VA officials show the continued struggle with the fast-spreading illness, even as leaders see progress and push for a reopening of some department facilities in coming weeks.
As of Tuesday morning, VA had recorded 11,312 cases of coronavirus in the last two months. 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.
Of that total, 2,486 are considered active cases, a decrease of about 150 from Monday’s announced total. In the last week, that figure has dropped from nearly 3,000 active cases, a reduction of almost 16 percent.
Those positive signs have prompted VA officials to begin evaluating a path to normal operations across the department’s facilities, many of which have been partially or completely closed in the last 60 days.
Health facilities that see falling numbers of new coronavirus cases, reductions in the rate of positive tests among patients for the virus, and increases in testing capacity will be able to start phase one — allowing some elective procedures and resume some face-to-face visits — in coming days.
Later phases will include rescheduling postponed appointments, allowing non-essential employees to return to work and opening VA facilities to visitors. VA cemeteries, benefits offices and other facilities will also use the same reopening standards.
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Despite the positive trends, the number of deaths connected to the virus saw a significant jump this week, rising from 869 reported fatalities on Monday to 921 on Tuesday. In addition, 28 VA employees have succumbed to complications related to the illness.
The fatality rate among VA patients who have contracted coronavirus is above 8 percent, well above the national rate of about 6 percent for all positive virus reports. More than 80,000 Americans have died from coronavirus-related complications.
VA officials have 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.”
So far, 104 VA medical centers have seen at least one death connected to coronavirus. The New York Harbor Health Care System in New York City has seen the most, with 91 fatalities.
The VA New Jersey Health Care System has seen the second most, with 81 fatalities, but currently has the most active coronavirus cases of any location, with nearly 200. Twenty-two different medical centers within VA have seen 10 or more deaths from the illness.
In recent days, messages sent from department officials have warned that African American veterans, Hispanic veterans and veterans who were exposed to burn pits overseas may face greater health risks from the virus than other groups.
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.