As of Wednesday evening, department officials reported 4,227 active cases spread over 138 medical centers across America. That’s down more than 78 percent in the last two months, and the lowest total since early October.
All of the VA medical centers reported fewer than 100 active cases among all patients on Wednesday, also the first time that has happened since last fall. More than 237,000 VA patients have been diagnosed with the virus since the pandemic began in March 2020.
The decrease comes as case totals across America have also dropped since the height of the pandemic in December and January. More than 29 million Americans — about one in every 11 citizens — have tested positive for the virus in the last 14 months.
VA officials have repeatedly noted that, unlike military members who live and work on somewhat isolated installations, veterans live in the civilian community. So their case numbers will mirror national trends more closely.
During a health care summit hosted by GovernmentCIO Media & Research on Thursday, acting VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Richard Stone called the recent improvements “dramatic” and encouraging
“A few months ago, we had over 3,000 patients hospitalized for COVID issues,” he said. “That number is right around 1,000 today, so it’s about a two-thirds reduction.”
The lower numbers of coronavirus cases also come as VA and national health care officials have dramatically increased vaccination efforts. President Joe Biden announced last week his goal of having all American adults eligible to receive a coronavirus vaccine by May 1, with an eye towards having most adults vaccinated by mid-summer.
VA officials have administered more than 3.3 million vaccine doses since mid-December. This week, department officials announced more than 1 million veterans have received both doses of the two-shot regimen, along with nearly 250,000 VA employees.
“There was a lot of talk about Americans’ hesitancy to take the vaccine. But veterans have taken the vaccine at extraordinary rates and continue to line up,” Stone said. “We’re very pleased.”
At Thursday’s summit, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., praised that work so far.
“The good news is the VA is getting vaccines into people’s arms, I think, better than anybody in the nation,” he said. “The bad news is, we need more vaccines. It’s important that we get more in VA.”
Lawmakers including Tester have introduced measures to dramatically expand veterans eligibility to get the vaccine at VA medical centers. Currently, only veterans eligible for VA health care and certain caregivers can receive the shots, a group that is expected to total about 7 million people.
Department leaders support legislative changes to expand that to more than 20 million veterans and caregivers, but have warned that availability of vaccines from federal partners will still be the determining factor of how quickly they can distribute them.
More than 534,000 Americans have died from coronavirus complications in the last year, including almost 11,000 VA patients.
Last Sunday marked the one-year anniversary of the announcement of the first VA patient death from the illness, a 70-year-old living in Oregon. Since then, the department has averaged losing nearly 30 patients a day from coronavirus-related conditions.
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.