A day after Vice President Mike Pence said that Veterans Affairs is “not seeing cases in its facilities increase,” the department’s coronavirus count topped 6,000 after one of its largest one-day jumps in the last month.
The number of deaths within the VA health system also rose to 391 on Thursday morning, up 18 from the day before. The department has seen a steady rise in cases and fatalities since March 22, when officials reported just 160 cases and a single death from the fast-spreading illness.
Nationally, more than 800,000 Americans have contracted the virus and more than 44,000 died have died from complications related to the illness.
On Wednesday, during the daily coronavirus briefing at the White House, Pence praised efforts by VA officials to deal with the outbreak.
“We are also very proud of our team at the VA,” he said. “The VA has addressed its capacity issues. It’s not seen cases among the veterans in its facilities increase, so they are deploying teams to focus on nursing homes.”
He noted that VA officials have deployed teams of employees to state nursing homes in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Florida to help with community response there.
Department officials said 1,895 department employees have tested positive for coronavirus so far. Twenty of them have died. Six of those deceased were in patient care roles.
In a statement, VA press secretary Christina Noel said that less than one percent of the department workforce has contracted the illness, underscoring that “VA’s personal protective equipment practices are keeping veterans and employees safe during challenging times.”
Union officials in recent weeks have complained about supply shortages and apathy from leadership regarding staff problems.
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.
The death rate among VA patients who have contracted the virus is nearly 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.
At least 132 VA sites are treating a patient with coronavirus, and 70 sites have seen at least one death from the illness.
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.