Lawmakers call on VA to provide more data on minority veterans affected by COVID-19

Abbie Bennett
May 29, 2020 - 4:15 pm
U.S. Army Pfc. Seth Robertson of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, receives a COVID-19 swab from Pfc. Seth Wild, May 28, 2020, at Hohenfels Training Area.

U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Garrick W. Morgenweck

Earlier this month, the Department of Veterans Affairs warned that black and Hispanic veterans could be at higher risk for the coronavirus. But VA has not provided any data on how many have fallen ill or died of COVID-19. 

Now, members of Congress are calling on the department to provide more demographic information on its COVID-19 patients and those who have died of the virus. 

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Chairwoman Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., sent a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, requesting additional data on the effects of the pandemic on veterans of color. 

"While the world’s understanding of the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, evolves every day, the data from civilian patient outcomes so far portend a disproportionate and catastrophic impact on racial, ethnic, language minority communities, and tribal nations," lawmakers wrote. "Congress must be made aware of when increased positive cases and negative outcomes are experienced by veteran cohorts so we can better enable VA to protect and treat those veterans at heightened risk during this pandemic." 

Lawmakers asked for COVID-19 cases by age, race, ethnicity, gender, tribal affiliation, spoken language and more. 

An internal VA email from the Office of Health Equity obtained by Connecting Vets earlier this month 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 Press Secretary Christina Noel told Connecting Vets at the time that "preliminary testing data indicates that among those tested by VA, African American and Hispanic veterans are testing positive for COVID-19 at higher rates than other veterans." 

Preliminary treatment data, though, shows that survivability of the virus in VA care, from the time of testing, "does not differ by race," Noel said. 

VA did not provide any of the data and Noel did not respond to multiple requests for the data.

VA's data is "not yet statistically significant," Noel said, adding that VA is still using it to target outreach to veterans and VA facilities nationwide are using maps of community hotspots to direct outreach. 

Most of VA's outreach to veterans is done by phone, Noel said, "which allows VA to educate patients about their risk while minimizing their exposure to others." 

VA's data is similar to national trends that have shown African Americans and Hispanic Americans face significantly higher risk for the virus. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month said that death rates among black or African American patients and Hispanic patients were "substantially higher than that of white or Asian" patients. 

Other groups of at-risk veterans include homeless veterans, who advocates say struggle to socially distance in shelters, lack access to hygiene items and running water and are facing closures of shelters across the country. 

Thousands of veterans are homeless on any given night in America and more than a million more are at risk of homelessness. About 11 percent of the total homeless population in America are veterans and veterans of color are disproportionately homeless. About 45 percent of homeless veterans are black or Hispanic, though they only represent about 3.4 percent of the total veteran population. 

Older veterans or those with preexisting health conditions also could be at higher risk. Veterans exposed to toxins during military service, from Agent Orange to burn pits and beyond, also could be at higher risk, experts say.

As of May 28, VA reported 1,200 virus-related deaths and said it was tracking more than 13,650 cases. VA classifies just 1,200 of those cases as still "active" and says more than 11,000 are "convalescent," meaning they are recovering or it has been at least 14 days since they last tested positive. At least 31 VA employees have also died of the virus. 

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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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