The Department of Veterans Affairs on Tuesday surpassed 50,000 coronavirus cases among its patients since the start of the pandemic in March, with more than half of those positive tests coming in the last 50 days alone.

Despite the milestone, the department has seen a significant decrease in its number of active coronavirus cases in recent weeks. As of Monday evening, 137 VA hospitals were monitoring 3,942 current cases of the fast-spreading illness, a drop of about 32 percent in the last month.

VA officials have said that they do not consider the active-case counts or the cumulative coronavirus totals as appropriate measures of the spread of the illness, and point instead to the hospitalization rate among patients with positive tests.

So far in August, about 15 percent of all patients who test positive for coronavirus have required hospitalization. That’s the lowest rate in the last five months. In July, the figure was 17 percent. In the prior four months, the figure topped 20 percent.

Currently only two department sites — one in North Chicago, one in Gainesville, Fla. — have reported more than 100 active coronavirus cases on campus. That number was as high as 14 late last month.

Of the 50,000-plus cases among VA patients in the last six months, about 87 percent of the cases were veterans. The remainder are a mix of dependents, military personnel, VA employees and community members receiving care at veterans hospitals as part of the department’s federal mission to serve as a backup health system for the nation.

At least 2,636 VA patients have died from the illness since March 18. More than 520 of those deaths were in August so far, making it the deadliest month for virus patients in the system since May, when 740 deaths were recorded.

In June and July, that number did not top 500. The department is on pace to hit nearly 650 in August alone.

Along with the patient deaths, the department has seen 49 fatal cases of the virus among its employees. All but nine of those occurred before July 9.

The decrease in active cases and increase in fatalities comes as large sections of America are seeing similar trends after a summer spike in coronavirus transmissions, particularly in the south and west.

More than 176,000 Americans have died from complications related to the virus in the last six months.

VA officials have said they are preparing for the possibility of another surge in cases this fall, in line with predictions from national health experts.

But the department has also worked to reopen many medical care sites to non-emergency patients, staff and visitors in recent weeks, in an effort to return to normal operations.

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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