The Department of Veterans Affairs this week reached a series of new, grim milestones related to the coronavirus pandemic, including topping 20,000 cases of the fast-spreading illness since the nationwide crisis began.
On Friday, department officials reported that they have recorded at least 20,509 cases of coronavirus among patients since early March, when the outbreak began to spread across the United States. The total represents about 7 percent of all individuals tested in the Veterans Health System.
A day earlier, the number of VA employee cases surpassed 2,000. At least 38 employees have died from complications related to the illness, although officials have emphasized that most of them have not had direct contact with patients.
Earlier this week, the death total among VA patients who have contracted the virus rose above 1,500. As of Friday, that number was about 5 percent to 1,573.
The percent of fatal complications among VA patients who test positive has decreased slightly in recent weeks, dropping below 8 percent for the first time since early May. However, it still sits 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.
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.”
The most troubling milestone, however, may be the department announcing on Friday it has gone above 3,000 active cases of coronavirus among patients for the first time since April, during the initial wave of the pandemic.
As of Friday morning, 3,094 patients were being actively treated for the illness, an increase of nearly two-thirds in the last week and up 123 percent since the start of June. The rise is fueled mainly by spikes at VA medical centers in Texas, California, Florida, Arizona and South Carolina — areas that public health experts have warned have seen significant increases in recent weeks.
VA officials in recent days have downplayed concerns about the rising number of active coronavirus cases, saying those figures do not necessarily mean increased pressure on department facilities.
They will not release specific breakdowns of patients receiving care inside department hospitals versus those isolated at home, but say the hospitalization rate of patients currently sits around 24 percent, significantly lower than the 38 percent peak in March.
About 2.4 million Americans have tested positive for coronavirus since the start of March. On Thursday, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the number of infected people in the country could be as much as 10 times higher than those known cases.
More than 121,000 Americans and nearly 490,000 worldwide have died from complications related to the illness.
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.