On March 14, the Department of Veterans Affairs recorded its first veteran lost to the coronavirus. Now, seven months later, 3,667 VA patients have died because of the fast-spreading virus, an average of about 17 each day.
That is roughly the same number of veterans who die by suicide each day on average, according to VA data, something the president and his administration, lawmakers and advocates have repeatedly referred to as a "crisis" and a "top priority."
VA has recorded more than 66,000 total cases among veterans, staff and patients the federal agency has treated as part of its Fourth Mission to back up the American healthcare system in times of crisis. The vast majority of those thousands of patients and staff have recovered -- nearly 89%.
But VA's mortality rate of more than 5.5% is still much higher than the overall American mortality rate of about 2.8%, though VA's mortality rate has fallen from a high of nearly 6.8% earlier in the pandemic.
VA's mortality rate is influenced by the age and overall health of its patients, who tend to be older and less healthy than the overall American population. The department cares for a total of more than 9 million veterans, roughly half of the veterans in the United States.
Now, after a lull in late August and early September, active COVID-19 cases at VA are spiking again. In recent days, the department has recorded active cases consistently at or above 4,000 -- a more than 50% increase from this time last month and an about 30% increase during the first two weeks of October, according to the department's publicly available data.
"Trends in new cases generally reflect what is going on in the country and local communities," VA Press Secretary Christina Noel said.
VA is on pace to reach more than 450 deaths in October and 70,000 total cases.
While the department may see more grim milestones this month, Noel said that overall hospitalization rates are much lower now than at the start of the pandemic. The number of COVID-19 patients who require a hospital stay has fallen from about 38% in March steadily to about 13% as of Oct. 5.
"The best measure of how COVID-19 is affecting VA patients is the rate of hospitalizations, which are decreasing and at their lowest point of the pandemic," Noel said.
But in the latest of VA's weekly pandemic response reports for Oct. 6-12, the department recorded 432 COVID-19 inpatients, a more than 25% increase over the previous week.
Cases among VA staff continue to grow along with patient cases, reaching a total of more than 5,800 on Oct. 14, with 58 staff deaths caused by the virus. The department employs nearly 400,000 workers, adding more than 55,000 new hires, including 10,436 registered nurses and nurse practitioners during the pandemic.
The VA health systems with the most active cases are: Milwaukee (133); North Chicago (103); Orlando (83); Nebraska-Western Iowa (80); Minneapolis (80); Columbia, South Carolina; Atlanta (72); Middle Tennessee (72); and Mountain Home, Tennessee (72).
The VA systems with the most deaths remain primarily the areas hit hardest early in the pandemic, including New Jersey, New York, Boston, Texas Valley Coastal bend, Bronx, Phoenix, San Antonio, Cleveland and New Orleans.
Of the 141 VA health systems, department data shows that at least 17 have had more than 1,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases during the pandemic.
In August, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie echoed what Veterans Health Administration leaders had been saying for months, the department was preparing for a potential second wave, or "boomerang" of the virus this fall and winter, stocking supplies and preparing for some patients who may have long recovery times.
VA continues to administer thousands of COVID-19 tests to patients and staff, reaching more than 787,000 tests administered nationwide as of Oct. 12. That total number of tests does not reflect how many individual people have been tested at VA, but rather how many tests have been administered -- some people may receive multiple tests. In September, VA averaged about 4,790 COVID-19 tests per day.
Some veterans remain more affected by the pandemic than others.
Results of a VA study of more than a quarter of a million veterans released late last month showed that Black and Hispanic veterans are twice as likely as white veterans to test positive for the coronavirus at VA, indicating an "urgent need to proactively tailor strategies to contain and prevent further outbreaks in racial and ethnic minority communities," researchers said.
Department data provided to Connecting Vets in July showed that Black and Hispanic veterans made up nearly half of all VA patients who had tested positive for the coronavirus, though they only comprise about 23% of all VA patients.