Since Veterans Affairs leaders reported the first death of a VA patient from coronavirus in mid-March, the number of positive cases — and fatalities — in the department’s health system has risen dramatically.
As of April 9, there have been 174 patients who have died from the illness. That number is up almost 100 from one week ago. On March 30, the total was less than 20.
VA officials have offered only partial details of the deaths, but until this weekend all of the fatalities had been among patients aged 50 or older. Officials from the New Orleans VA Medical Center, one of the hardest hit in the country by the illness, announced that a patient in his or her 40s died there on Sunday. No other information was given.
Across all VA sites, 3,504 patients in VA care have tested positive for the fast-spreading virus. That’s about 12 percent of all of the cases tested by the department, and is more than double what it was on April 1.
In addition, at least 1,100 VA health care employees had tested positive for the virus as of April 8. Department officials on Wednesday said seven deaths have occurred among staffers in at least five sites: two in Reno, Nev., and one each at VA hospitals in Ann Arbor, Mich., Detroit, Indianapolis and Houston. The location of the seventh death wasn’t immediately known.
Based on information released by department health officials, here are the VA medical centers currently dealing with coronavirus cases:
The increases in sick patients come amid growing news reports detailing shortages in staffing and protective equipment at sites throughout the veterans health system.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that internal VA memos showed “serious” shortages of protective gear even as department officials publicly downplayed any concerns. A separate report by Buzzfeed this week showed individual VA hospitals beginning to ration supplies even as leaders insisted they were well stocked.
In a statement, department leaders have promised “an aggressive public health response to protect and care for veterans, their families, health care providers, and staff in the face of this emerging health risk.”
That includes work with the CDC and the possibility of accepting some non-veteran patients at VA medical centers to provide relief to overtaxed local health care systems.
Earlier this week, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie announced during a White House briefing that he would open about 1,500 beds nationwide to communities in need of extra resources, despite the increasing coronavirus numbers within the VA health system.
VA officials have said that opening those areas to non-veteran patients will not hurt delivery of care to any veterans who need it.
Officials also said any veteran with symptoms such as fever, cough or shortness of breath should contact their local VA facility before visiting to determine their next steps.
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.