The official tally of coronavirus cases in the Veterans Affairs’ health system rose to 4,946 on Thursday, a jump of nearly 11 percent from the previous day’s totals.
Sixteen VA medical centers are now reporting more than 100 coronavirus cases among their patients, and 29 facilities have reported at least 50 cases, according to data released by the department on Thursday. The overnight increase in positive tests was the largest one-day rise VA officials have seen since April 4, when the system had just over 2,500 cases.
Fatalities are also rising rapidly. On April 4, the department reported 98 deaths from the fast-spreading illness, nearly all of them in the previous two weeks. In the 12 days since then, the death toll has risen to 284, officials said Thursday.
In addition, at least 1,500 staffers have been stricken with the illness, and news reports have noted at least 14 deaths among those employees.
So far, 125 VA medical sites have recorded at least one positive case of coronavirus. They include sites in every state except New Hampshire.
However, in recent days the validity of those official counts have been called into question. Internal hospital memos obtained by Military Times on Monday showed 66 confirmed cases of coronavirus at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center, but as of Wednesday the official count for that facility still showed fewer than 40 cases.
VA officials reworked their public online coronavirus reports on Thursday. The total for the Cleveland site now sits at 74, nearly double from one day earlier. Local hospital officials did not answer questions about the discrepancy and referred to the official department count.
The death rate among VA patients who have contracted the virus is about 6 percent, well above the rate for all of the United States. The latest national data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows about a 4 percent death rate among all Americans who test positive for 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.
Prior to Thursday, VA officials had listed the approximate ages of all of the deaths so far to coronavirus. Only one individual in VA care who has died from the virus had been under the age of 40. Nearly three-quarters of the VA patient deaths had been 70 or older.
However, VA officials stopped releasing that partial death data in their latest update, publicly releasing only total fatalities.
New York City has been among the hardest hit areas by the illness, with almost 20 percent of all the confirmed cases in the United States. VA’s medical center in Brooklyn has been the deadliest site in the system so far, with 36 fatalities. VA’s site in the Bronx is second, with 33 deaths.
The New Orleans VA medical center still hosts the most confirmed coronavirus cases in the department’s health system, with 436.
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.