The number of Veterans Affairs patients with active cases of coronavirus rose to its highest level in three weeks on Thursday, but department officials insist the steady recent increase is not a cause for concern.
As of Thursday morning, VA researchers reported 1,755 active cases of the deadly virus spread across 130 department medical centers. That’s the highest level since mid-May and is up more than 26 percent from May 28, when the department reported a low of 1,390 cases.
In a statement, VA press secretary Christina Noel said that case counts “are not the best measure of VA’s performance fighting COVID-19, because more testing could also lead to higher case counts, including among those who lack symptoms.”
She noted that patient hospitalization rates for the illness have been steady through April (24 percent), May (21 percent) and June (22 percent so far), all significantly down from the 38 percent rate the department saw in March.
But the near-steady increase in cases over the last three weeks comes amid VA plans to begin returning numerous medical centers to pre-coronavirus operations, and as health experts nationwide have voiced concerns about regional spikes in virus case numbers.
On May 18, department officials announced 20 “lead sites” would resume some in-person appointments and elective procedures that had been cancelled or postponed by the ongoing pandemic. Officials at the time said conditions in the hospitals and local community would dictate how quickly those facilities would return to normal.
In the last three weeks, 12 of those facilities have seen their number of active coronavirus cases grow, several by significant margins.
The South Texas Veterans Health Care System in San Antonio, which had just nine active cases in late May, now has 74. The VA Southern Arizona Health Care System in Tucson grew from five active cases to 36 over the same span.
The Bay Pines Health Care system in Florida had its total active cases grow from 12 to 52. The VA facility in Charleston, S.C., had just one active case on May 28 and now has 32.
Department officials did not provide information on how many of those patients are in care in the hospitals and how many are outpatients whose progress is being monitored without bringing them onto the VA campuses.
Noel said officials have not reconsidered reversing or reducing their plans to reopen those locations.
“All VA medical centers, including those in hot spots, are taking precautions and considering the unique circumstances of their state and local markets, environmental safety preparedness and clinical risk assessments,” she said.
VA officials have in place employee and patient screening requirements, physical distancing restrictions and personal protective equipment rules. Noel said in addition to those steps, “VA will continue to maximize the personalized virtual care options of telehealth, phone consults and wellness checks” in coming weeks.
Nearly 1,500 VA patients have died from the fast-spreading coronavirus since early March. That figure is up 24 percent since the start of June.
More than 8 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.”
In addition to the patient challenges, VA has seen 35 employees die from complications connected to the coronavirus and 1,831 sickened by the illness.
More than 117,000 Americans have died from the virus since early March.
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.