Veterans Affairs officials reported more deaths from coronavirus patients in August than any previous month of the pandemic, but department leaders dismissed concerns about the rising number of fatalities by questioning their own public records on the virus.
As of Monday evening, at least 2,935 VA patients have died from the sickness in the last six months, according to the department’s own daily summary of cases. About one in every 18 positive cases of coronavirus among VA patients has resulted in a death.
There were 820 patient deaths reported in August. About 490 individuals died from virus-connected conditions in July, about 380 in June, about 720 in May and roughly 500 in April and March combined, according to VA’s daily public releases on virus response.
However, VA press secretary Christina Noel said officials “disagree with the premise” that more patients died last month than any previous one, noting that “VA cannot confirm month-to-month fatality counts … as reporting lags from one month to the next.”
The department declined to provide specific breakdowns of when deaths occurred that may contradict their other public announcements on case numbers.
In response to whether the faster rise in fatalities at the end of the summer raised concerns, Noel noted that “the trends found at VA are similar to trends at private hospitals across the country.”
The fatality rate from coronavirus among VA patients is more than double the national rate. About 6 million Americans have contracted the virus in the last six months, and about 183,000 have died from complications related to the respiratory illness.
But VA officials have cautioned against comparing their patient population to the rest of the country, noting the increased dangers the virus presents to individuals who are elderly and infirm, two descriptors that encompass most of the department’s medical cases.
Active cases of the illness spiked in June and July but have dropped gradually over the last six weeks.
As of Monday evening, VA reported 3,460 active cases of coronavirus at 136 separate department medical sites across the country. That’s down about one-third in the last month. The number of positive cases among inpatients dropped from 923 on July 13 to 343 on August 31, a decrease of almost two-thirds across seven weeks.
Noel said VA officials believe the “best measure” of how coronavirus is affecting department patients is the rate of hospitalizations, which hit a six-month low in August. That figure was 16 percent last month, down from 17 percent in July and 24 percent in April.
VA publicly released inpatient totals on a daily basis during the spring, but no longer updates those numbers on their coronavirus tracking web sites, making the hospitalization rate difficult to track.
Testing among Veterans Affairs patients has also skyrocketed in recent months. According to department officials, by the end of March about 630 people a day were tested for COVID-19. By the end of August, that number had jumped to 6,300 individuals a day.
At least 4,675 VA employees have tested positive for coronavirus since the start of April, with 49 staffers succumbing 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.