Veterans Affairs officials will expand their research into the long-term detrimental effects of COVID-19 even as they brace for the possibility of more short-term flare ups caused by the virus in the near future.
On Monday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said 17 VA sites have already established long-COVID care clinics, with 20 more on the way in coming months. Along with treating the small percentage of VA patients with lingering or recurring virus illnesses, the sites will also conduct research on the persistence and impact of the virus.
“We’re at the forefront of long COVID research, making groundbreaking discoveries that will enhance understanding of this disease in veterans and non-veterans,” he told reporters during a press conference.
More than 624,000 VA patients and staff have contracted coronavirus over the last two years. At least 21,800 have died from virus-related illnesses.
Dr. Elizabeth Brill, VA’s assistant under secretary for clinical health, said research so far has shown that COVID infections increase individuals’ risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and mental health disorders, even in mild cases.
“VA offers a unique opportunity to study COVID because we have detailed longitudinal medical information on 6 million veterans,” she said. “We can compare health outcomes after COVID infection to those of similar patients who have not been infected, something many studies are unable to do.”
Officials said they have not seen any indication yet whether veterans are more likely to develop long-COVID or other COVID-related side effects. However, they did note that individuals who are older or who have pre-existing health conditions, which makes up much of the VA patient population, are more vulnerable to the virus than younger, healthier individuals.
About 3.5% of all VA patients who have contracted coronavirus in the last two years have died from related health conditions, roughly twice the rate of the American public.
VA officials have seen a steady increase in active coronavirus cases in recent weeks, up above 4,000 over the weekend. That’s also up almost 40% in the last month, although still a small fraction of the record-high posted during the omicron wave earlier in January (nearly 78,000 daily cases).
McDonough said the number of VA staff unable to work because of COVID infections or exposure passed 1,260 on Monday, up about 68% from two weeks ago. But that number, too, is far below the roughly 16,000 employees kept out of work at the height of the omicron surge.
“But I am increasingly concerned about what we are seeing now,” he said.
Brill said officials are planning for “what we expect will be continued surges and dips over time” with coronavirus. That includes local contingency planning as numbers rise, and working in advance to ensure that transmission rates remain low.
The department also continues to require all employees to get vaccinated or be shifted to roles that limit exposure to patients and visitors.
Despite threats of firings late last year, McDonough said so far only six employees have been dismissed for COVID-related reasons: one for refusing to disclose vaccination status, one for refusing COVID testing, and four for refusing to wear masks in facilities where they are mandated.
VA officials did not disclose where those individuals were working or what roles they occupied.
Nearly 1 million individuals have died from COVID-related illnesses since the virus first appeared in America in early 2020.
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.