Coronavirus deaths among Veterans Affairs patients have increased steadily in recent weeks, putting the department on track for its most monthly fatalities from the fast-spreading sickness since the height of the pandemic in the spring.
As of Monday evening, at least 2,448 VA patients had died from coronavirus complications in the last five months, with 322 of those deaths coming in August alone.
At that pace, the department will top 600 coronavirus deaths this month, well above the 497 recorded in July and 429 in June. In May, as the first wave of pandemic illnesses and deaths hit the country, the department saw more than 740 deaths among patients.
The rise in coronavirus fatalities comes as the number of active coronavirus cases — which spiked in late July — has steadily dropped over the last three weeks.
On Monday, department officials reported 4,213 active cases of the virus among patients, down more than one-third from the high of 6,213 active cases announced three weeks ago.
VA officials have repeatedly dismissed “case counts and other cumulative totals” as reliable measures of the impact of the virus among its patient population, saying that the rate of hospitalizations among infected individuals provides a better gauge of department success.
So far in August, about 15 percent of all patients who test positive for coronavirus have required hospitalization. That’s the lowest rate in the last five months. In July, the figure was 17 percent. In the prior four months, the figure topped 20 percent.
When asked about the recent increases in fatalities, VA press secretary Christina Noel said that the department “is closely monitoring all aspects of COVID-19 related to veterans health care and making adjustments as needed.”
Texas remains among the hardest hit areas by the latest nationwide surge in coronavirus cases. Five Texas VA sites — San Antonio, Houston, Temple, Harlingen and Dallas — are among the top 12 sites in active cases.
But death rates among patients there have stayed significantly lower than states like New York and New Jersey, which saw hundreds of deaths in the spring connected to the virus.
Three New York City area VA medical centers — the New York Harbor system, the Bronx VA and the hospital in East Orange, N.J. — account for about 13 percent of all VA coronavirus deaths nationwide.
More than 170,000 Americans and nearly 775,000 individuals worldwide have died from the virus.
Noel said that in anticipation of potential increases in coronavirus cases numbers this fall, VA medical centers are “taking precautions and considering the unique circumstances of their state and local markets, environmental safety preparedness and clinical risk assessments.”
Last week, officials announced plans to gradually reintroduce volunteer workers at VA sites after banning them from hospital campuses last spring in an effort to limit spread of the virus.
Department leaders said volunteers will be required to complete new training on current coronavirus procedures, to include proper use of personal protective equipment. They will also be screened for any symptoms prior to admission to the facilities.
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.