The number of coronavirus deaths among Veterans Affairs patients jumped almost 13 percent over the weekend, and the New York City area continues to be the hardest-hit region for veterans dealing with the illness.
As of Monday morning, at least 339 patients in VA care have died from the virus, which has killed more than 35,000 individuals nationwide.
The VA death total is up from 301 on Friday, although department officials typically have several days lag time before recording all deaths. So far, 68 VA facilities across the country have lost at least one patient to the illness.
The New York City area alone accounts for more than one-third of those fatalities. Four VA sites near the metropolitan area — including East Orange, N.J. — have totaled 128 deaths, all in just the last few weeks.
The death rate among VA patients who have contracted the virus is more than 6 percent, well above the rate for all of the United States. The latest national data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows about a 4 percent death rate among all Americans who test positive for the illness.
However, the VA population being tested and treated for coronavirus is significantly older than the American population as a whole. Health experts have said that elderly and infirm individuals are particularly susceptible to fatal respiratory issues connected to the virus.
Total cases in the VA system rose to 5,468 by Monday morning, up more than 1,250 from one week earlier. One month ago, VA reported only 130 cases.
The department’s medical center in New Orleans continues to have the most active coronavirus cases, with 445. The Bronx VA medical center is the only other one with more than 400 cases.
To date, 128 VA hospitals and health care facilities have recorded at least one case of coronavirus.
Until last week, VA had been reporting the approximate age of all department deaths as well as the number of coronavirus tests administered to patients. However, that information is no longer being made public.
In addition, more than 1,500 VA employees have tested positive for coronavirus in the last month, and at least 14 have died. VA officials have said only a few of those individuals had direct contact with patients.
Union officials and department leaders have sparred publicly in recent weeks over the availability of personal protective equipment at VA facilities. Employee advocates have reported shortages and rationing among staff, but VA leaders have continually insisted that supplies are adequate to meet needs.
Late last week, Richard Stone — the executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration — sent a message to staff promising that all employees in a community living center, spinal cord injury unit or inpatient mental health unit will receive one mask a day to help limit exposure to the illness.
The message for the first time also acknowledged that those employees had been asked to severely limit their use of new masks and re-use protective equipment in an attempt to preserve supplies.
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.