Veteran Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough on Wednesday reiterated his plea for all veterans and their families to get vaccinated against COVID-19, saying the protection is “the only way to end this pandemic and return to normal life.”

In remarks to the AMVETS National Convention in North Carolina — an annual mass gathering of veterans that was cancelled last year because of pandemic concerns — McDonough said months of progress in resuming regular operations are being jeopardized by the latest wave of virus cases sweeping the nation.

“We’ve already lost thousands of veterans to this deadly disease, and now the delta variant is causing an exponential increase in infections, hospitalizations and deaths once again,” he told the assembled crowd.

“That’s why everyone needs to be vaccinated. Ninety-nine percent of those dying from COVID right now are unvaccinated. Almost every COVID death from this day forward is preventable.”

Vaccine rates across the country have varied widely, with less than half of all adults in some regions inoculated against the deadly respiratory virus.

Department officials on Tuesday night reported nearly 13,000 active cases of coronavirus at VA facilities across the country, a nearly eight-fold increase in the last two months.

VA has reported more than 500 patients deaths from coronavirus-related complications since the start of August. The department recorded fewer than 300 such deaths in July.

McDonough’s comments came on the same day White House officials were expected to formally announce plans for booster shots for individuals who previously received coronavirus vaccinations earlier this year and in late 2020.

Department officials in a statement said that VA “will follow CDC guidance and recommendations regarding a booster shot for all Americans if and when that decision is made,” but provided no further details.

Vaccines are free to all veterans, their spouses and caregivers through VA. The department has vaccinated more than 3.2 million veterans in the last eight months and more than 300,000 staffers.

Earlier this month, McDonough announced plans to require most VA medical employees to be vaccinated to keep their jobs. Contractors and volunteers would also be required to be vaccinated to enter department facilities.

On Wednesday, McDonough reiterated the need for that policy to improve safety for all staff and patients. But he also praised VA workers for their flexibility and ingenuity throughout the pandemic so far.

For example, telehealth appointments jump from about 2,500 a day before the pandemic to more than 45,000 a day this March.

“While our lives are returning to normal, we must also recognize that some things shouldn’t go back to what they were at VA,” McDonough said.

“The work we’ve done to respond to the pandemic has forged us into a stronger and better department. Our work on telehealth, tele-appeals are allowing us to meet vets where they want, when they want and in unprecedented ways.”

Unlike last summer, when most of the major veterans groups’ conventions were cancelled or shifted to online-only events, many groups are holding the veterans gatherings this year, albeit with extensive safety measures. McDonough and other senior VA officials are expected to visit with most of them in coming weeks.

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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