The Department of Veterans Affairs reached another grim milestone Friday with the 400th death of a patient from the fast-spreading coronavirus, all coming in the last 40 days.
As of Friday morning, 6,363 veterans in VA medical care have tested positive for the virus. Both of the number of cases and death have climbed steadily since mid-March.
So far, 71 VA facilities across the country have lost at least one patient to the illness. Nationwide, more than 46,000 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 more than 78,000 tested as of Thursday.
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 149 deaths, all in just the last few weeks.
The death rate among VA patients who have contracted the virus is more than 6 percent, a figure that has risen as high as 6.5 percent over the last few 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 has risen to more than 5.5 percent. That level was also 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 454. Three other New York City area VA hospitals have also topped 400 cases. Seventeen medical centers across the country have recorded at least 100 cases.
To date, 133 VA hospitals and health care facilities have recorded at least one case of coronavirus.
Until recently, VA had been reporting the approximate age of all department deaths. However, that information is no longer being made public. All but one of the deaths publicly reported have been aged 50 or older.
In addition, more than 1,900 VA employees have tested positive for coronavirus, and at least 20 have died. VA officials have said six 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.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal this week, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie acknowledged that the department did face mask shortages in recent weeks but said he is confident staff has adequate supply levels now.
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.