Veterans Affairs hospitals hit their highest levels of active coronavirus cases this week, but department officials say the hospitalization rates of those patients has also reached its lowest levels since the start of the pandemic.
The contrast in VA’s pandemic data appears to indicate that rising numbers of cases within the veterans health system may not be translating into the most dire health consequences for many patients.
On Monday evening, the total number of patients with active virus cases (those who have neither reached convalescent status or died) topped 6,000. That’s up more than 35 percent from the start of July and four times the total at the start of June, when the national total dropped below 1,400 patients.
Eighteen different VA facilities reported more than 100 active cases among their patients, including about 300 each at facilities in south Texas, San Antonio, Phoenix and Orlando, Fla.
Nearly 1,800 VA patients have died from coronavirus related complications since mid-March, a figure which has risen steadily since the start of June but at a much lower rate than the increase in active cases.
More than 135,000 Americans nationwide have died from coronavirus complications in the last four months.
The fatality rate among VA patients who test positive for the virus has remained higher (above 6 percent now) than the general public (about 4 percent), but VA officials have noted that their patients are more likely to be among the highest-risk groups for the illness and more likely to face other health issues.
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More than 21,000 VA patients have recovered from the illness in recent months.
Despite steadily rising case numbers over the last six weeks, VA officials have said they are not seeing medical centers being overwhelmed by the ongoing pandemic.
Last week, in a conference call with reporters, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said that the department is still pushing towards a goal of getting “veterans back into their normal routine as soon as possible” after months of delayed and cancelled medical appointments in an effort to stem the spread of the illness. He dismissed concerns about the rising active case counts disrupting that focus.
In a statement on Monday, VA press secretary Christina Noel said that case counts “are not the best measure of how COVID-19 is affecting VA patients, because the increase in cases is due to an increase in testing.”
Department health officials have conducted about 376,000 tests since the start of March. In May, officials averaged 2,745 tests a day. One month later, that number jumped to more than 4,300 daily.
Noel said the hospitalization rate of VA patients is now “at its lowest point of the pandemic and down more than half since March.” About 18 percent of coronavirus patients were hospitalized in June, compared to 21 percent in May and 38 percent in March.
Of the nearly 6,000 active coronavirus cases, 261 are currently in intensive care unit beds, and another 440 receiving acute care treatment. VA officials have not made public the total number of outpatient versus inpatient coronavirus cases in the last few months, citing patient privacy concerns.
“All VA medical centers are taking precautions and considering the unique circumstances of their state and local markets, environmental safety preparedness and clinical risk assessments,” Noel said.
“VA has put in place rigorous safety measures at all of its facilities, including employee and veteran COVID-19 screening, physical distancing and appropriate personal protective equipment such as face coverings.”
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.