The number of active coronavirus cases among Department of Veterans Affairs patients tripled in June, with more than 4,100 active cases at 138 medical sites spread across the country.
Veterans Affairs officials in recent days have downplayed the sharp increase in cases of the fast-spreading virus, saying that hospitalization rates among those positive patients have remained steady and lower than they were at the start of the pandemic in March.
But the number of active cases, which had dropped from around 3,000 at the start of May to 1,390 by the end of that month, had an abrupt turn around over the last four weeks, rising to 4,170 by early morning on July 1.
Eleven VA medical centers in five states — Texas, Arizona, Florida, South Carolina and Illinois — have more than 100 active coronavirus cases on campus. VA sites in San Antonio and Phoenix each have more than 300 active cases.
In May, the sites with the most cases and deaths from the fast-spreading illness were located in New York and New Jersey. Currently, most of those locations have fewer than 10 active cases.
At least 1,629 VA patients and 39 employees have died from complications related to coronavirus in the last four months. Nationally, more than 127,000 Americans have died from the illness.
The percent of fatal complications among VA patients who test positive for coronavirus has decreased slightly in recent weeks, dropping to around 7 percent. However, it still sits well above the 5 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 department in late May announced plans to reopen some medical centers for non-emergency surgeries and other routine business, pledging to keep separate patients with coronavirus from the rest of the medical center population.
No changes to those plans have been announced in recent weeks, despite the increase in active cases.
Earlier this week, department leaders announced a new digital screening tool designed to allow visitors faster access to medical centers. The mobile phone app asks users if they have had any exposure to coronavirus cases in the recent past or exhibited any signs of illness.
In a statement, officials said they hope the new tool “lowers exposure risk and eases patient stress” as well as helping veterans “gain confidence with increased digital interactions as part of their VA health care experience.”
VA staff have reported significant growth in veterans using telehealth options since the start of the pandemic.
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.