Active COVID-19 cases at Veterans Affairs hospitals double in June

Abbie Bennett
June 22, 2020 - 2:30 pm
NHRC Operational Infectious Diseases lab technician aliquotting specimens for COVID-19 testing within the biological safety cabinet, known as the "hood."

Photo by Amanda Wagner/Naval Health Research Center

The number of active coronavirus cases among Veterans Affairs patients continues to grow as officials move forward with plans to resume normal operations at some hospitals.

VA reported 2,332 active COVID-19 cases as of Monday, an about 36 percent increase in the past week (about 500 cases) and a more than 94 percent increase from May 28, when the department saw its active cases fall to about 1,200

Active cases are now spread across 129 of VA's 175 medical centers nationwide, and at least 11 of those hospitals have added 20 or more active cases over the past week. 

At least 1,514 VA patients have died because of the virus, up about 5 percent in the last seven days and about 26 percent since the end of last month. 

At least 1,940 VA employees also have tested positive and 36 have died of the virus. 

Last week, faced with similar, though smaller, increases in active cases, VA Press Secretary Christina Noel said the number of active COVID-19 cases at department hospitals is "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." 

VA has administered about 272,633 COVID-19 tests nationwide, according to the agency. 

When asked about higher case counts on Monday, Noel repeated her answers from last week. 

The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized because of the virus at VA have remained steady since April, she said, with 24 percent in April, 21 percent in May and 22 percent so far in June. Those are all significantly lower than the 38 percent peak hospitalizations VA experienced in March. 

Increasing active cases are not changing VA leaders' plans to begin resuming normal operations at some of its hospitals, including in areas that have seen some of the largest jumps in cases recently.

In May, VA announced 20 medical centers would begin resuming some in-person appointments and procedures delayed or canceled because of the pandemic, and VA officials at the time said that those reopenings would depend on local conditions and whether those hospitals could meet a set of criteria to ensure patient and staff safety. 

But in recent weeks, at least 12 of those hospitals have seen increased cases, some with significant spikes. 

Echoing national increases, VA facilities in Arizona, Florida, Texas and South Carolina all have seen significant increases, now among the hospitals with the most active cases in the entire VA system, which has about 175 hospitals and more than 1,000 clinics. Several of those hospitals did not even make the top 10 for most active cases a month ago. 

The Southern Arizona VA in Tucson went from five active cases late last month to 43 as of Monday. 

The Bay Pines VA in Florida had about 12 active cases in late May and now has 87.

The Charleston VA in South Carolina had just one active case last month and now has 47. 

The South Texas VA in San Antonio saw active cases increase from nine in late May to 151 as of Monday, making it the hospital with the most active cases in the VA system, followed by the Phoenix VA with 130. 

Previously, areas such as New York, New Jersey, Chicago, New Orleans and Washington, D.C. saw the greatest number of veterans infected with the virus. Those areas still lead the system in number of veterans who have died because of the virus. 

VA did not provide information on how many of the patients at each facility were hospitalized. 

All VA medical centers "are taking precautions and considering the unique circumstances of their state and local markets, environmental safety preparedness and clinical risk assessments," Noel said, adding that VA has safety measures in place including coronavirus screening, physical distancing, personal protective equipment such as masks and plans to "continue to maximize" telehealth appointments. 

In emails to veterans last week, VA health systems in some areas, such as Florida, South Georgia and the Caribbean, warned that "over the past several weeks, our communities have been experiencing a rise in positive cases" and "that is expected to continue for the foreseeable future." The increases are "likely a combination of relaxing restrictions that were taken early and individuals failing to adhere to masking and other social distancing precautions." 

VA acknowledged in the emails that the trend of increasing cases "is concerning" but said the department is "taking additional steps to ensure your safety." Those steps include a phased approach to reopening. 

"Even though our States have re-opened to stimulate the economy and to try to get to a 'new normal' it is absolutely critical that we all continue practicing precautions that were successful in the early months of slowing the spread of COVID-19," the emails read. "What the second and possible third waves of this virus will look like depends on us – and whether we take these precautions seriously and are vigilant in our efforts even if others around us do not."

VA advised veterans to wear a mask in public, especially in businesses, maintain at least 6 feet of social distance and avoid crowds. 

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Are you a veteran, family member or VA employee dealing with the coronavirus? Contact Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett. If you require secure communications, email abbierbennett@protonmail.com

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