Veterans Affairs officials reported nearly 5,000 active cases of coronavirus among patients at under their care as of Tuesday morning, but VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said that three-fold increase in cases over the last month doesn’t point to the department’s system being overwhelmed.
“We are preparing in case there is a major rebound,” Wilkie told reporters in a department status update on Tuesday. “But if you remember, the earliest predictions for this were hundreds of thousands of cases and tens of thousands of deaths, and we have not seen that.”
VA said nearly 4,900 patients are currently dealing with the fast-spreading illness. More than 1,700 patients have died from complications related to the illness since the start of March.
The number of active patients has more than tripled from the start of June, when fewer than 1,400 such cases were publicly reported.
But Wilkie noted that nearly 19,000 patients have recovered from the illness, a statistic he calls an encouraging sign that even among the VA’s high-risk population of patients the fatality rate of individuals who contracted the disease was not as tragic as some feared.
The percent of fatal cases among positive coronavirus patients at VA has decreased in recent weeks, to just under 7 percent. That still sits significantly above the 5 percent death rate for all Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Officials with the department have said the mortality data for their patients “cannot be used to compare VA infection rates with the community because of differences in population risk, test availability, and follow-up.”
More than 330,000 VA patients have been tested for the virus since the start of March.
Wilkie said of the active VA cases, only about 600 are in intensive care unit beds, meaning the VA’s nationwide network of emergency care capabilities has not been overwhelmed.
He also noted that many of the patients with active coronavirus cases are non-veterans from local communities that are seeing surges. The department, whose fourth mission mandates serving as a backup national health network, is currently providing backup assistance to state medical centers in 46 cases, including hard-hit areas like Texas and Arizona.
“It is a balancing act for us, but veterans always come first,” Wilkie said. “But the good news is we did not see the explosion in veterans cases that we feared.”
Last week, VA officials announced they had resumed at 100 different department medical centers at least one in-person medical service suspended at the start of the nationwide pandemic. Wilkie said that work is being done on a case-by-case basis, but “the goal is to get veterans back into their normal routine as soon as possible.”
Coronavirus cases have spiked in dozens of states over the last month. Wilkie said the department is preparing for a “second surge” of nationwide cases, but said officials are working to ensure that the department has the right procedures and protective equipment supplies to weather such a wave.
Wilkie noted that the number of telehealth appointments has skyrocketed in recent months as some in-person services have been curtailed or delayed by the pandemic. Mental health appointments in particular have grown from about 40,000 a month in early 2020 to more than 900,000 today.
The secretary said he sees that as an enduring change within the department, one that other medical systems should consider copying. “I think the rest of the country should be taking a look at what we are doing there.”
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.