VA begins blocking hospital visitors after first veteran coronavirus death

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This story originally published on March 16 and was updated at 11:40 a.m. March 17.

The Department of Veterans Affairs announced the first death of a veteran connected to COVID-19 over the weekend, and since then has begun limiting visitors to its hospitals and clinics nationwide.

VA reported tracking at least 38 cases of veterans in 15 states as of March 17 and officials said VA had administered more than 100 tests. 

“As a result of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., beginning at 5 p.m. on March 16, 2020, visitors will no longer be allowed access to the medical center,” according to Memphis, Tenn. VA Medical Center officials. “This action is being taken as a precautionary measure considering the increased vulnerability of certain patient populations receiving care at the facility.” 

VA officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment about what VA medical facilities, specifically, were instituting the ban on visitors, or if any exceptions would be made. 

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The change comes after VA already locked down visitation at its 134 nursing homes and 24 spinal-cord injury/disorder centers, which care for a total of 65,000 veterans vulnerable to the virus nationwide. 

About half of VA’s patients are older than 65, a population at increased risk for infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control. 

For those who believe they may be ill, VA is asking veterans to call before they arrive at a VA medical facility. 

Once at a VA medical center, VA staff is expected to screen all patients for flu-like symptoms before allowing them to enter. 

VA’s last update on visitation on its website was to advise those who are ill not to visit. 

“At this time, VA is urging all visitors who do not feel well to please postpone their visits to VA facilities,” VA said. 

Rep. Greg Steube, R-Fla., announced March 16 that VA officials were telling veterans to arrive at least 45 minutes early for appointments at the Bay Pines VA Medical Center to account for "enhanced" virus screening. 

So far, veterans have tested positive, or presumptively positive, in:

  • Palo Alto, Calif. (1)
  • Southern Nevada (1)
  • Denver, Colo. (2)
  • Togus, Maine (2)
  • Tucson, Ariz. (1)
  • Ann Arbor, Mich. (1)
  • New Orleans, La. (5)
  • Portland, Ore. (1)
  • Puget Sound, Wash. (5)
  • Atlanta (8)
  • New Jersey (1)
  • Fresno, Calif. (1)
  • Sioux Falls, S.D. (2)
  • San Francisco, Calif. (1)
  • Bronx, N.Y. (2)
  • White River Junction, Vt. (2)
  • Cleveland, Ohio (1)
  • Hudson Valley, N.Y. (1)

VA officials cited privacy concerns when they declined to provide further details about the patients, including where or how they may have become infected.

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Reach Abbie Bennett: or @AbbieRBennett.
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