As coronavirus cases and deaths rise, VA still plans to resume normal operations

Abbie Bennett
June 19, 2020 - 12:41 pm
Coronavirus

Photo by Sgt. Michael Baltz/107th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

The Department of Veterans Affairs is continuing to see increases in coronavirus cases and deaths, and so far this month has seen an about 37 percent increase in active cases of the virus. But officials plan to move ahead with resuming normal operations at some VA hospitals. 

As of June 19, VA had 18,088 total cases, 1,907 of which were active -- the highest number of active cases the department has seen in three weeks and a 9 percent increase from just one day prior. 

Nearly 1,500 VA patients have died of the virus so far. The number of deaths has increased by about 24 percent since the beginning of this month. About 8 percent of VA patients with the virus have died because of it, higher than the 6 percent death rate for Americans overall, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

VA Press Secretary Christina Noel told Connecting Vets in a statement that the number of cases "are not the best measure of VA's performance fighting COVID-19 because more testing could also lead to higher case counts, including among those who lack symptoms."

So far, VA has administered more than 263,879 tests nationwide. VA cares for more than 9 million veterans annually, leaders have repeatedly said. 

The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized because of the virus at VA have remained about the same since April, Noel 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. 

But VA officials said the increase in cases and deaths are not changing plans to begin resuming normal operations at some of its hospitals, including locations that have seen some of the largest increases recently. VA officials said in emails to veterans this week that "though concerning," the increase in cases and deaths are not changing plans to begin resuming normal operations at those medical centers.

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.

The Southern Arizona VA in Tucson went from five active cases late last month to 39. The Phoenix VA had 96 cases on Friday. Earlier this week, it had only about two dozen. 

The Bay Pines VA in Florida had about 12 active cases in late May. On Friday, it had 70. Other Florida VA hospitals also had among VA's highest active cases, including Miami, Orlando and Tampa. 

The Charleston VA in South Carolina had one active case and increased to 40. 

The South Texas VA in San Antonio went from about nine active cases in late May to 100.

Previously, areas such as New York and Louisiana saw the greatest number of veterans infected with the virus. 

"VA is seeing clusters of COVID-19 cases in the same general areas non-VA providers are," Noel said. 

Veterans Health Administration head Dr. Richard Stone told senators last week the increase in cases isn't as high as expected.

"There are a number of troublesome states," he said. "We have not seen that increase in cases correlate well to the veteran population, therefore we remain with substantial capacity in those areas." 

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

Despite those increases, VA is moving ahead with its plans to reopen those hospitals, Noel said. 

“All VA medical centers, including those in hot spots, are taking precautions and considering the unique circumstances of their state and local markets, environmental safety preparedness and clinical risk assessments,” she said.

VA has patient and staff screening requirements, physical distancing and personal protective equipment rules in place, along with plans to continue telehealth appointments. 

In emails to veterans this 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. 

VA has also seen an increase in the number of employee cases, with 1,863 cases as of Friday and 36 staff deaths from the virus. 

-

VA prepares for second COVID-19 wave, long coronavirus patient recovery times

90 days later, VA has more than 1,400 COVID-19 deaths and cases continue to rise

Veterans Affairs hospital PPE supplies inadequate for second COVID-19 wave, leaders warn

'We're not there yet' with COVID-19 tests for staff, VA leaders tell Congress

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.