For the first time in 14 months, Veterans Affairs officials reported no new COVID-related deaths at department medical centers across the country on Monday, an encouraging sign that the pandemic may be ending.
“When you think back on the more than 12,000 deaths of veterans that have occurred, this is a sobering day,” said Dr. Richard Stone, acting under secretary for health at VA. “No deaths is a testament to the hard work that our people have done to get the vaccine into people’s arms and highlights the fact that the vaccine works.”
The last date with no reported VA COVID-related deaths was 433 days earlier, on March 18, 2020. Since the start of March 2020, more than 12,060 VA patients and 142 VA staffers have died from complications related to the virus, which has killed nearly 3.5 million individuals worldwide.
The VA death totals — which do not include all veterans in America, since many do not use department hospitals as their primary medical care — equates to about 27 individuals lost each day over the course of the pandemic in America.
But in the last few months, that number has slowed considerably. About 300 VA patients have died from coronavirus-related conditions in the last month. In January, that total was more than 2,400.
Stone said he hopes veterans and their family members take that positive news as evidence that getting all Americans vaccinated is a critical and ongoing goal.
“The vaccine works,” he said. “We got to zero because it does work. But not everyone is protected. And until we get to the point of everyone being protected, we’re going to keep working to reach every single veteran that is willing to take the vaccine.”
Department of Veterans Affairs staff have administered more than 6 million vaccines to veterans, their relatives, their caregivers and federal workers in the last six months. About 3 million individuals are fully vaccinated, getting both doses of the two-shot regimen or receiving the single-shot vaccine.
But Stone said that total has decreased significantly of late, down from a peak of about 50,000 vaccinations a day in early spring to less than 10,000 a day now.
“Part of that is because [many] people have been vaccinated,” he said. “But there’s a percentage of the population that still need to get their shots. And it’s a great concern that we have not reached the point that we think we need to totally protect the population, and to protect each other and protect our families.”
In recent days, active cases of coronavirus among VA patients across the country dropped to their lowest levels since June 2020. But the department is still dealing with more than 2,600 cases spread over 138 medical sites, underscoring that the pandemic is not over.
All veterans, spouses and caregivers are eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine free of charge through the department, thanks to a change in law passed by Congress earlier this year. Earlier this month, department officials announced that those individuals can now get walk-in appointments at most VA medical locations.
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.