Veterans Affairs officials are again urging medical center patients and staff to get the latest COVID-19 vaccine booster, this time in response to the latest wave of the illness spreading across America.

The department will be among the first federal agencies to get doses of the vaccine, according to VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month approved the new vaccine booster and are recommending it for anyone six months or older who has not gotten a coronavirus vaccine in recent weeks.

“The vaccine that has proven over and over again to be safe and effective,” Elnahal told reporters at a press event Monday.

“It protects against severe outcomes and death significantly. As we are seeing hospitalizations go up across the country connected to the virus, we’re concerned that if folks don’t get this latest booster, they will not benefit from the extra protection.”

Active COVID-19 cases among VA patients are up more than 200% in the last two months, with roughly 5,500 cases in the system as of Monday morning. That number is still well below the 70,000-plus cases that VA medical centers in early 2022 amid the national pandemic.

But 306 veterans have died from COVID-19 related illnesses since June 1, according to department statistics. And officials said the ongoing national surge in cases could pose extra dangers to veterans with a host of pre-existing medical conditions.

Nearly 25,000 individuals in the department’s health care system have died from COVID-19 related conditions since March 2020, the start of the pandemic in America. That’s roughly 19 a day over the last 3.5 years, although most of those deaths came in 2021 and 2022.

Elnahal said vaccines could be available at some VA sites as soon as the end of this week. The booster will not be mandatory for any patients or staff but will be offered to as many individuals in the system as possible.

VA officials have said they are monitoring regions and individual hospitals that are seeing infection increases in case additional safety measures — such as mask mandates or visitation limits — are necessary. But Elnahal said there are no such plans now.

The CDC has said the vaccines and boosters are “the best protection against COVID-19-related hospitalization and death” as well as conditions such as long-COVID, where symptoms of the illness can linger for months or years.

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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