About one-third of the deaths have been reported in the last 40 days alone. VA officials have dismissed questions about the recent spike in fatalities by noting that some of the deaths may have occurred earlier than publicly reported, making exact case counts for individual weeks or months unreliable.
Still, the department announced 820 deaths among patients due to coronavirus complications in August alone, the highest monthly total announced since the start of the pandemic last spring and up more than 67 percent from the number of deaths reported in July.
VA officials have announced more than 150 additional fatalities from coronavirus since Sept. 1.
Department hospitals in the New York City area have seen the most fatalities related to the virus, with 329 at medical centers in the New York Harbor Health Care System, the Bronx medical center and the VA hospital in East Orange, N.J. However, the majority of those deaths came before June 1.
The fatality rate from coronavirus among VA patients is more than double the national rate. About 6.1 million Americans have contracted the virus in the last six months, and nearly 187,000 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.
The department has seen a significant drop in the number of active coronavirus cases among patients in recent weeks, down more than 35 percent from August 1 to Sept. 1.
Department leaders have said they disagree with using those metrics (which are updated multiple times a day by VA officials) as the basis for evaluating the severity of the illness among VA patients or the success of the department’s response thus far.
Instead, they point to the rate of hospitalization among confirmed coronavirus cases as their preferred gauge of the virus’ severity. That figure was 16 percent last month, a six-month low and down from 17 percent in July.
More than 53,000 VA patients have been diagnosed with coronavirus since the start of March. The majority of those patients are veterans, with a little more than 1,000 additional patients who are active-duty military, dependents of veterans, and non-veterans in communities where other health care systems have been overwhelmed by the virus.
In addition to the patient deaths, at least 52 VA employees have died from complications related to the virus.
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.