“[There is] a growing crisis with the increase in hospitalizations from COVID-19, specifically from the Delta variant. More than 97 percent of hospitalized patients with COVID are not vaccinated,” Assistant Under Secretary for Health Carolyn Clancy warned lawmakers during a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
“Local indoor mask mandates are occurring again primarily because the disease is spreading among those who are not yet vaccinated … Signs that we’re seeing mirror prior surges, in a warning of what’s ahead.”
Active cases of coronavirus across the VA health care system topped 3,300 on Thursday morning, their highest level since early May. That mark is up 121 percent in the last month alone.
That includes a sharp rise in cases among VA employees. In June, VA officials reported 192 new cases of the virus among staffers. So far in July, there have been 390 new employee infections.
About 300,000 VA staffers have been fully vaccinated against coronavirus, roughly 70 percent of the department’s employee total. Earlier this month, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the department is looking into mandating vaccines for front-line health care workers, but last week he said no decision has been made on the move yet.
Department officials also have not announced any decisions to reinstate restrictions at VA facilities, such as limiting non-emergency appointments. McDonough has said he hopes to fully reopen all VA sites by this fall, but the resurgence in virus numbers could complicate those efforts.
Clancy told committee members that the department has begun to deploy emergency personnel and resources “to multiple areas of the country” in advance of anticipated medical needs.
“This underscores the critical need for everyone to be vaccinated,” she said. “To those listening, I implore you to get vaccinated to help keep yourself, your loved ones and our veterans safe.”
In March, Congress passed legislation allowing all veterans, their spouses and caregivers to receive a coronavirus vaccine through the Department of Veterans Affairs. VA officials have vaccinated about 3.4 million individuals so far this year, but have said that demand has slowed down considerably in recent months.
Veterans can contact their local VA medical offices for information on vaccine availability.
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, the surge in infections has been mainly focused in southern states, with Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas and Missouri seeing among the largest case counts in the last month.
At least 12,650 VA patients and 145 employees have died from virus-related complications since March 2020. Nationwide, the virus is responsible for more than 607,000 deaths over that time frame.
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.