Despite a 36 percent increase in active coronavirus cases among Veterans Affairs patients in the last week, department officials continue to insist the rise should not raise concerns among veterans or public health experts.
On Monday morning, VA officials reported 2,332 active cases of the fast-spreading illness among patients at 129 department medical centers across the country.
That’s up more than 500 cases in the last week alone, and 68 percent higher than the department’s low of 1,390 active cases at the end of May. Eleven sites have added 20 or more active cases in the last seven days.
More than 1,500 patients have died from complications related to the illness since the start of March.
Last week, when asked about similar but smaller increases in the active coronavirus case counts, VA press secretary Christina Noel said that those figures “are not the best measure of the department’s performance fighting COVID-19, because more testing could also lead to higher case counts, including among those who lack symptoms.”
She repeated those responses when asked about the new increases on Monday.
“The best measure of how COVID-19 is affecting VA patients is the number of hospitalizations, which are steady,” she said. In March the hospitalization rate was 38 percent. In April, May and June, that number has been below 24 percent.
The department has acknowledged hot spots for the virus around the country, and Noel said that “all VA medical centers are taking precautions and considering the unique circumstances of their state and local markets.”
The South Texas Veterans Health Care System in San Antonio, which had just nine active cases in late May, now has 149. That facility has added 110 cases in the last week alone. VA officials would not release breakdowns on how many of those cases are outpatients, citing privacy concerns.
The San Antonio site is one of 20 “lead sites” identified by VA officials last month to resume some normal operations, including scheduling non-emergency in-person exams and allowing some non-essential personnel to work on site.
Two other lead sites have seen large jumps in active case totals in recent days: The VA medical center in Charleston, S.C., has added 30 cases in the last week, and the VA center in Tucson, Ariz., has added 38 new cases this month. Ten others have seen an increase since the start of the month.
Noel said no changes or retractions related to the increased virus numbers are planned for those sites.
“VA has put in place rigorous safety measures at all of its facilities, including employee and Veteran COVID-19 screening, physical distancing and appropriate personal protective equipment such as face coverings,” she said.
All VA health care sites have had a universal masking policy in place since April.
After San Antonio, the VA medical centers with the most active sites are in Phoenix (123), Bay Pines in Florida (85), Houston (77), Tampa in Florida (71) and Orlando in Florida (70). Texas and Florida have been among the states which have seen the biggest increases in case numbers in recent days.
Nearly 120,000 Americans have died from coronavirus in the last four months.
More than 8 percent of patients in VA care who contract the virus have eventually died from the illness, well above the 6 percent death rate for cases among all Americans, according to the latest data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, VA officials have said the mortality data for their patients “cannot be used to compare VA infection or mortality rates with the community because of differences in population risk, test availability, and follow-up.”
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.