The official tally of coronavirus cases in the Veterans Affairs’ health system topped 4,200 on Tuesday, but internal VA documents obtained by Military Times call into question how reliable that figure is.
The number of veteran cases has risen steadily over the last month, as the fast-spreading virus has sickened more than 579,000 individuals across America.
On March 14, only 30 coronavirus cases were confirmed at a handful of VA medical centers. Today, VA reported 4,261 at 118 department sites.
That includes 37 inpatient and outpatient cases at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center. But internal hospital memos sent Monday and obtained by Military Times listed 66 already-confirmed cases of the illness among its patients. Local hospital officials could not be reached for comment on the discrepancy.
Last week, similar internal memos made public by the Wall Street Journal showed significant problems with availability of personal protective equipment despite VA leadership’s public insistence that staff supplies are adequate.
As of Tuesday, 257 patients and at least nine VA staffers have died from coronavirus-related complications.
The death rate from the virus among VA patients who have contracted the virus is about 6 percent, well above the rate for the country as a whole. The latest national data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows about a 4 percent death rate among all Americans with the illness.
However, the VA population being tested and treated for coronavirus is significantly older than the American population as a whole. Health experts have said that elderly and infirm individuals are particularly susceptible to fatal respiratory issues connected to the virus.
Only one individual in VA care who has died from the virus has been under the age of 40. Nearly three-quarters of the VA patient deaths have been 70 or older.
Based on the latest official department data, here are where the VA coronavirus cases and deaths are located:
New York City has been among the hardest hit areas by the illness, with about 19 percent of all the confirmed cases in the United States. On Tuesday, VA’s medical center in Brooklyn became the deadliest site in the system so far (with 32 fatalities), passing the department’s hospital in New Orleans (with 31). VA’s site in the Bronx has seen 27 deaths.
The New Orleans site still hosts the most confirmed coronavirus cases in the department’s health system, with 429.
In addition to taking care of veteran patients, VA officials in recent weeks have activated their “fourth mission” to support community health care needs by making more than 1,500 beds available to non-veteran patients.
On Tuesday, the department said it has already cared for 80 outside patients in New York, 24 in New Jersey, 27 in Michigan and four in New Mexico. Five of those patients in New York and one in New Jersey died from the illness.
In a statement, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said that “helping Veterans is our first mission, but in many locations across the country we’re helping states and local communities. VA is in this fight not only for the millions of veterans we serve each day; we’re in the fight for the people of the United States.”
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.