The Department of Veterans Affairs on Veterans Day hit its 10th consecutive day of record-high levels of active coronavirus cases among patients, more than doubling infection levels in the last month alone.
On Wednesday evening, VA officials reported they were tracking 9,364 cases of the virus among veterans connected to their health care system. That figure is up nearly 7 percent from Monday, 59 percent in the last two weeks and 120 percent in the last 30 days.
The number of inpatients receiving focused medical care related to coronavirus complications has also spiked in recent weeks. On Tuesday, VA officials reported the total had passed 700. During the first week of October, the number was 340 patients.
The sharp increases in coronavirus levels come amid record-high case totals across the country in recent weeks.
On Wednesday, the total new cases in the United States reached 145,000, the highest mark since the start of the pandemic in America eight months ago. More than 10 million Americans — about one in every 330 citizens — has tested positive for the virus.
In an interview with Military Times on Monday, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the increased rate of infections within the VA health care system is inevitable if the virus numbers in the rest of the country continues to grow.
“Our veterans don’t live in a cocoon … where you can block yourself off from the rest of the world. They live in the communities,” he said.
“We’re not immune from what happens in the country.”
However, VA officials have said that they do not view active case counts as a fair reflection of the department’s coronavirus response. They instead insist that the hospitalization rate among infected veterans — which has remained stable for several months — is a better marker to gauge success.
The active coronavirus cases are spread out over 139 VA medical centers across the country. Of those, 137 have seen at least one death connected to the virus.
More than 240,000 Americans have died from complications related to the virus in the last eight months. Among VA patients, at least 4,254 veterans have succumbed to the illness. Of that total, more than 1,000 of the deaths have come in the last two months.
Roughly 5 percent of VA patients who test positive for the virus have eventually died from health complications related to the infection. That figure is significantly above the roughly 3 percent death rate among all Americans infected by the pandemic.
However, VA officials have discouraged 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 many of the department’s patients.
Veterans Affairs officials have conducted more than 913,000 coronavirus tests since the start of the pandemic. Wilkie said he does not see a need for increased testing among patients, even amid the latest nationwide spike in cases.
“There has to be a reason for a test: if you don’t feel well, if you’re going to have surgery, that kind of thing,” he said. “Right now, I don’t see a change in our procedures. And it has worked pretty well.”
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.