Veterans Affairs health officials said Wednesday they are confident in their system’s ability to handle another surge in COVID-19 cases later this year, even as vaccine and booster shot distribution has slowed nationwide.

“We have the tools now to really weather another wave of increased cases in ways that we didn’t have before,” said Dr. Shereef Elnahal, VA undersecretary for health, during a press roundtable.

“We have a new bivalent vaccine that is really encouraging and has potential to provide even more protection against the newer variants of COVID-19. That is being administered now across the country in VA facilities. And we are looking diligently to make sure that the availability of therapeutics is robust.”

As of Tuesday evening, department officials reported 6,274 active cases of coronavirus among patients connected to 135 VA medical facilities across America.

That number is up nearly 2,000 cases from the same time in October 2021, but down more than 90% from mid-February, when the department reported a single-day record of nearly 78,000 cases.

Since the pandemic began in America in March 2020, at least 23,188 veterans with access to VA health care have died of complications related to the virus. That equates to more than 24 veterans lost a day.

An additional 258 VA employees have also died from issues linked to COVID-19.

The department (and the country as a whole) saw a spike in active cases in December 2020 and December 2021, and health officials have warned another increase could be coming later this year.

Despite that, only about 5% of Americans eligible for the updated coronavirus vaccine have received it, according to federal estimates. Elnahal said VA has seen similar slow adoption among its population of patients.

“We have a really robust system of outreach to veterans who can benefit from the vaccine … including phone calls to veterans to remind them that the vaccine is available,” he said. “So, we are continuing that.”

Since vaccines were made available in late 2020, VA has fully vaccinated more than 4.2 million veterans.

In addition, more than 236,000 veterans have received bivalent vaccine boosters in recent months, which is designed to protect against both the original strains of the virus and more recent variants.

Although the medications are free through VA, many veterans may also have qualified for free or more convenient care through other medical options, making the total number of inoculations for veterans nationwide likely much higher.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported nearly 97 million COVID-19 cases in America over the past 30 months, and more than 1 million deaths linked to the virus.

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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