Active coronavirus cases among Department of Veterans Affairs patients reached their 14th consecutive day of record-high levels over the weekend, surpassing 10,000 for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
Before November, the total active cases spread across the department’s medical centers had not gone above 6,400 at any point since the first coronavirus cases in America were identified in early March.
But VA’s active cases — individuals in contact with the department who have neither recovered from the virus or died from it — have risen steadily since mid September, and skyrocketed this month.
On Sunday, department officials reported 10,362 active cases, up 68 percent over the last two weeks and 252 percent over the last two months.
The sharp increases in active cases come as multiple states across the county have reported their own record-high infection rates. More than 11 million citizens nationwide — about one in every 30 Americans — has tested positive for the virus at some point in the last eight months.
In an interview with Military Times last week, 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.
VA medical centers in Minneapolis and Milwaukee continue to have the most patients with active cases of coronavirus, with 331 and 296 respectively as of Sunday. Three facilities in Missouri (Columbia, Kansas City and St. Louis) each have more than 170 active cases.
Thirty-seven medical centers have 100 or more active cases they are tracking, according to department data.
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 relatively stable — is a better marker to gauge success.
Of VA’s nearly 89,000 total confirmed cases, about 74,000 individuals have recovered. So far 4,327 patients have died from complications related to the illness, about 124 deaths every week of the pandemic.
In addition, at least 66 VA employees have died from coronavirus complications. More than 250,000 Americans have died from the illness, more than one in every 1,300 U.S. citizens.
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.
On Friday, Moncef Slaoui — head of the White House’s Operation Warp Speed initiative to fast-track vaccine development in response to the pandemic — said that a working coronavirus vaccine could be made available in limited quantities starting next month, if the Food and Drug Administration sees progress with several different potential options under development.
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.