The number of active coronavirus cases at Veterans Affairs medical centers nationwide rose by more than 7 percent in the last five days, a worrisome turnaround from the almost daily reductions in infections over the last month.
Department officials released updated coronavirus case information on Tuesday for the first time since May 28. Officials had said the gap in information was due to internal VA information technology updates that had originally expected to be completed on Monday.
According to the data, VA hospitals were still dealing with 1,494 active cases of coronavirus as of Tuesday morning, an increase of more than 100 cases from five days earlier. At the start of May, that total was nearly 3,000, and declined steadily throughout the month.
Overall, the department has treated more than 14,400 individuals for coronavirus in the last three months.
The Washington, D.C. VA medical center — which sits just a few miles from the White House, the site of large-scale protests over racial inequality over the last few nights — now has the most active cases of any department site in America, with 66.
VA hospitals in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York also recorded more than 40 active cases among their patients.
Last week, in testimony before the House Appropriations Committee, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie praised his department’s coronavirus response as a “great success” but added that department staff are still “routinely putting their lives on the line and sacrificing time with their families to care for veterans, most of whom are older and are therefore more vulnerable to the virus.”
At least 1,254 department patients have died from the fast-spreading illness in the last three months. That figure is up almost 11 percent in the last week alone.
In addition, more than 1,500 employees have contracted the illness, and at least 32 have died from complications related to the virus.
On May 18, VA leaders began re-opening some department facilities in an effort to return to normal operations, based on declining case numbers throughout the Veterans Health System.
In a statement, leaders said that “rigorous safety measures — including employee and veteran COVID-19 screening, physical distancing and appropriate personal protective attire such as face coverings” would remain in place even as services were expanded.
Nearly 9 percent of patients in VA care who contract the virus have eventually died from the illness, well above the 6 percent death rate for cases among all Americans, according to the latest data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, VA officials have 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 100,000 Americans have died from the illness in the last four months, and more than 377,000 individuals worldwide have died from complications related to the virus since last fall.
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.