Veterans Affairs officials are again warning veterans who were exposed to open-air burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan that they could face additional risks from respiratory complications related to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
On Tuesday, the department announced that their Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry now exceeds 200,000 individuals. That effort, which began almost six years ago, allows veterans to document their exposures and formally report health concerns to VA physicians.
Typically full registration in the database includes an in-person exam by a medical professional, but most VA facilities are currently waiving that requirement in light of the ongoing pandemic.
Last month, VA officials began sending emails to registry participants to warn them of possible vulnerabilities to coronavirus complications, which include severe respiratory deficiencies and failure.
“We do know that veterans who are over the age of 65 or who have underlying health conditions such as asthma, chronic lung problems or other underlying medical issues may be more susceptible and experience more severe symptoms if infected with the coronavirus as is seen in the general population,” the message stated.
Last month, Sens. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., sent a letter to VA leadership asking for more aggressive virus response for veterans with burn pits exposure during recent overseas deployments.
They noted that the 200,000 registered members are likely only a small fraction of the total number of veterans with toxic smoke exposure. Outside groups have estimated the figure at more than 3 million.
"Given the significant number of at-risk veterans, it is critical that the VA prioritizes efforts to ensure that these brave men and women are able to safely receive care during the current public health crisis,” the lawmakers wrote.
As of Wednesday morning, VA officials were tracking 9,823 active cases of coronavirus among veteran patients, employees and outside patients (including military members and civilians in communities where local hospitals have been overwhelmed.)
The number of deaths topped 779. VA is not releasing information on the age of the deceased or whether they had underlying health conditions.
Across the VA system, 98 facilities have seen at least one death connected to the virus.
VA’s fatality rate among coronavirus cases is between 8 and 9 percent, well above the national rate of about 5.8 percent for all positive virus reports. In a statement, VA said the mortality data for their patients “cannot be used to compare VA infection or mortality rates with the community because of differences in population risk, test availability, and follow-up.”
More than 71,000 Americans have died from the illness in the last two months, and more than 1.2 million U.S. citizens have been diagnosed with 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.