The Department of Veterans Affairs topped 20,000 deaths connected to COVID-19 on Tuesday, just a few weeks before the two-year anniversary of the first pandemic case within the department.

The totals equate to about 28 deaths a day from the virus over the last 23 months.

The grim milestone comes as the latest nationwide surge in cases related to the virus’ Omicron variant has abated. Active cases at VA medical centers across the country had spiked at nearly 78,000 in mid-January, but had dropped to around 20,000 over the weekend.

Despite a lower fatality rate among patients who contracted that variant, the number of deaths among VA patients has also surged along with the higher caseload. Of the 20,131 deaths reported thus far, almost 2,400 — 12 percent of the pandemic total — have come since Jan. 1.

About 40 percent of the deaths occurred among inpatients at VA medical centers, according to department statistics. The others were among individuals receiving care at other hospitals but connected to the VA health care system.

The totals also include at least 243 VA employees who have died from coronavirus-related conditions.

VA officials have cautioned that their death totals do not represent all of the veteran fatalities in America, but instead only a portion of that group with connections to VA medical care.

The Louis Stokes VA Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio, has seen the most deaths of any facility, with 447 known deaths. Seven other department hospitals in Arizona, Minnesota, Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina and Texas have seen 300 or more deaths connected to COVID-19.

More than 77.5 million Americans have contracted coronavirus in the last two years, and nearly 917,000 (about 1.2 percent) have died because of respiratory and circulation problems resulting from the infection.

Among individuals tracked by VA, that figure is much higher: about 3.4 percent. Department officials have noted that their patients are much more likely to be older and have existing health problems than the general population, making them more vulnerable to the virus than the average American.

Earlier this month, when the nation passed 900,000 deaths linked to COVID-19, President Joe Biden issued a statement grieving the losses and urging all Americans to get vaccinated against the virus.

“We can save even more lives and spare countless families from the deepest pain imaginable if everybody does their part,” he said in a statement. “I urge all Americans: get vaccinated, get your kids vaccinated, and get your booster shot if you are eligible. It’s free, easy, and effective — and it can save your life, and the lives of those you love.”

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.

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