Veterans Affairs officials announced they have tested more than 71,000 patients for the fast-spreading coronavirus, a significant boost over the few hundred tests they were processing daily just a few weeks ago.
As of Wednesday morning, 5,735 veterans in VA medical care have tested positive for the virus and 373 have died. Both of those numbers have climbed steadily since mid-March.
So far, 68 VA facilities across the country have lost at least one patient to the illness. Nationwide, nearly 42,000 Americans have died from complications related to the virus.
Among the VA population, about 8 percent of individuals who have been tested were confirmed to have contracted the virus. Testing has ramped up significantly in recent weeks, with fewer than 17,000 patients tested on April 1 and 71,240 tested as of Wednesday.
The New York City area alone accounts for more than one-third of VA’s coronavirus 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 about 6.5 percent, a figure that has risen steadily over the last three weeks. In early April, fewer than 4 percent of patients battling the illness eventually died from it.
Nationally, the rate of death among all patients who test positive for coronavirus is about 5 percent, a mark which has also risen from about 4 percent in early April, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The VA patient population being tested and treated for coronavirus may be more vulnerable to the illness because it is significantly older and less healthy than the American population as a whole. Medical experts have said that elderly and infirm individuals are particularly susceptible to fatal respiratory issues connected to the virus.
The department’s medical center in New Orleans continues to have the most active coronavirus cases, with 446. The Bronx VA medical center and VA’s New York Harbor Health Care System are the only other ones with more than 400 cases.
To date, 129 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. 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.