COVID-19 deaths among VA patients climb past 400 in August so far

Abbie Bennett
August 19, 2020 - 11:47 am
Veterans are helping VA research COVID-19 treatments by donating blood.

Department of Veterans Affairs

This story originally published Aug. 19, 2020 at 11:47 a.m. EST. It was updated at 1:39 p.m.

Though the number of Department of Veterans Affairs patients actively sick from the coronavirus continues to drop, the number of COVID-19 deaths among VA patients is increasing.

So far in August, 405 VA patients have died because of the virus, and if the department continues to see deaths at a similar rate, it could reach 660 by month's end, making it one of the deadliest months for VA patients during the pandemic -- a milestone first reported by Military Times.

The first veteran to die of the fast-spreading virus was an Oregon man in his 70s, who died March 14 of complications from COVID-19, according to state and VA officials. 

As of Aug. 19, 2,515 total VA patients had died of the virus since the pandemic began. In June and July, VA saw 429 and 487 deaths, respectively as active cases surged. 

May has been the deadliest month for VA COVID-19 patients so far during the pandemic, with more than 740 deaths. 

VA's mortality rate among patients is about 5.3% compared to 3.1% among Americans overall. 

But while the number of deaths is steadily increasing among VA's virus-infected patients, the number of active coronavirus cases is continuing to fall after spiking in June and July, hitting a high of 6,356 active cases July 20. Active cases fluctuated but began steadily to fall in August even as deaths increased. On Aug. 19, VA recorded 4,057 active cases, down about 36% from a month prior, and 26% from the beginning of the month. 

Coronavirus hospitalizations are also still down at VA, with about 15% of all patients who tested positive for the virus requiring hospital stays -- the lowest rate since the pandemic took hold. In July, about 17% of patients who tested positive needed to be hospitalized. The highest rate of hospitalization was in March, at 38%. 

The number of VA staff who have died because of the virus also increased in August, with six more employee deaths after three in July and seven in June. 

VA Press Secretary Christina Noel said VA medical centers "are taking precautions and considering the unique circumstances of their state and local markets, environmental safety preparedness and clinical risk assessments." 

VA medical centers with the most active cases include North Chicago, Columbia, San Antonio, Houston, Atlanta, and three Florida VAs -- Gainesville, Gulf Coast and Orlando. But none of those approaches the number of deaths seen earlier in the pandemic at VA hospitals in New York, New Jersey and other areas. 

VA established "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," Noel said, and VA plans to continue telehealth options for patients. 

VA recorded more than 41,300 "convalescent" COVID-19 cases -- where the individual either is recovering at home or it has been more than 14 days since they tested positive.

The department has administered more than 558,542 COVID-19 tests so far.

VA senior leaders have said they're preparing for a potential surge of the virus in the fall and winter, stockpiling supplies and expanding capacity.

"We are preparing in the event this boomerangs on the country in the fall and in the winter,” Wilkie said in a recent interview. "We are preparing for the eventuality of flu and COVID coming together.”

Veterans Health Administration chief Dr. Richard Stone told Capitol Hill lawmakers in recent months that he's comfortable with VA's preparations so far, "but make no mistake, if we hit a really big second peak like was seen in late 1918, we'll be in the need to really grow even further ... Early on in this we bought a very large number of ventilators ... I think I've got about 2,500 extra ventilators that have come in now and will be distributed across the country."  

The flu epidemic of 1918 is the closest medical experts can come to evaluating how the COVID-19 pandemic might play out based on past experiences in the United States, Stone said, adding that 1918 saw a much deadlier second wave in the fall and winter. 

"We'll be prayerful that there's not a second wave, but I don't think we can predict it," Stone said. 

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Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

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