Black, Hispanic veterans make up 23% of VA patients but nearly half of all VA COVID-19 cases

Abbie Bennett
July 23, 2020 - 9:15 pm
Coronavirus

Photo by 1st Sgt. Rodolfo Armando Barrios Quinones/VA Caribbean Healthcare System

Black and Hispanic veterans make up nearly half of all Department of Veterans Affairs patients who have tested positive for the coronavirus, though they only comprise about 23% of all VA patients. 

As of mid-July, 34% of veterans who tested positive at VA were Black and 13% were Hispanic, according to department data provided to Connecting Vets. About 46% of positive tests were white and 7% were "some other race or unknown." 

The data was limited to veterans tested and treated at VA medical facilities nationwide. 

If those percentages remain about the same since mid-July, as of Thursday VA had more than 11,000 Black veterans and more than 4,500 Hispanic veterans who tested positive for the virus. 

Black veterans make up about 17% of all Veterans Health Administration users and Hispanic veterans comprise about 6%, compared to 72% white veterans and 5% "other." 

But not all veterans qualify for or receive care at VA. Black veterans represent about 12% of the overall veteran population and about 7% are Hispanic, compared to 77% white veterans and 4%  other.

The mortality rate for veterans at VA infected with the fast-spreading virus "does not differ by race," VA Press Secretary Christina Noel told Connecting Vets, though she did not provide any data.

"We're using this data to guide our public safety outreach efforts to veterans across the country," Noel said. 

In May, VA officials warned that Black and Hispanic veterans could be at higher risk for COVID-19, though the department refused to share the data it based that warning on. Officials said the data was not "statistically significant" enough to share publicly. 

VA still is not publicly releasing a breakdown of its COVID-19 cases by race. Its public-facing data shows overall cases, convalescent cases, active cases, deaths and cases by location, but does not provide any demographic data on those cases, recoveries or deaths.

An internal VA email from the Office of Health Equity obtained by Connecting Vets previously showed that a high proportion of positive COVID-19 tests administered by VA were among black and Hispanic veterans. The email said VA was working to reduce that disparity and seeking further outreach to veterans to get them tested and under care sooner if needed.

VA's data is similar to national trends that have shown Black and Hispanic veterans are disproportionately affected by the virus. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has repeatedly said Black, Hispanic, Native and Latinx Americans face higher rates of hospitalization or death compared to non-Hispanic white Americans.

"Long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put some members of racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting COVID-19 or experiencing severe illness, regardless of age," according to the CDC. "History shows that severe illness and death rates tend to be higher for racial and ethnic minority populations during public health emergencies than for other populations." 

Black Americans are five times more likely to be hospitalized or die of the virus than white Americans and Hispanic or Latinx Americans are four times more likely. 

VA officials were tracking 34,706 COVID-19 cases as of July 23. Of those, 6,128 were considered active cases and 26,622 were "convalescent," either recovering at home or 14-days since they tested positive.

At least 1,956 VA patients have died of the virus since March, an about 5.6% death rate, which has dropped from about 8% earlier in the pandemic. VA's death rate remains significantly higher than the overall American mortality rate of about 3.6%, according to the most recent CDC data. 

VA officials did not elaborate on what outreach they are performing to address the disparities in COVID-19 cases among Black and Hispanic veterans.

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

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