Veterans Affairs patient deaths from coronavirus topped 500 overnight and cases rose to nearly 9,000 as the illness continues to spread within the department’s health system.

As of Friday morning, 8,798 patients had contracted the fast-spreading virus, an increase of more than 2,000 cases within VA in the last five days. On April 2, the system had fewer than 2,000 total cases.

Dozens of sites have recorded more than 100 coronavirus cases among patients. The hardest-hit sites are all in the New York City area, while department hospitals in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. have all recorded more than 200 cases.

As of Friday morning, VA has seen 512 deaths from the illness. That’s up 88 cases in the last five days. On April 1, the system had reported only 53 deaths.

Seventy-six separate VA medical centers have seen at least one patient die from coronavirus-related complications.

The sharp rises mirror the rest of the United States. Earlier this week, Centers for Disease Control officials announced that the number of cases across the country had topped 1 million, and the number of deaths had topped 60,000.

On Thursday, for the first time in two weeks, the death rate among VA patients who have contracted the illness fell below 6 percent and has stayed there. That figure has been as high as 6.5 percent in recent days, and now sits close to the national rate of about 5.7 percent.

Worldwide, more than 235,000 individuals have died from the fast-spreading virus.

About one in every 14 people who test positive for coronavirus has eventually died from complications. In the United States alone, that figure is closer to one in 17 individuals.

In recent days, VA leaders have scrambled to defend the department's use of hydroxychloroquine as treatment for some coronavirus patients, following claims by President Donald Trump that the medicine showed potential as a cure. Subsequent medical tests have indicated the drug could actually worsen patients’ health.

The Associated Press reported this week that VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, in a conference call with veterans advocates, said the treatment was only being used for patients in high-risk groups, although he declined to give specific figures.

VA has tested more than 130,000 patients for coronavirus in the last two months. That amounts to about one in every 12 veterans tested being confirmed to have been infected.

Department officials have warned that veterans with symptoms such as fever, cough, or shortness of breath should immediately contact their local VA facility for assistance, but must contact the facilities before visiting to help limit spread of 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.

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