Veterans Affairs active COVID-19 cases up 77% from last month as virus spreads

Signage for the COVID-19 Testing Area is saturated by rain at a coronavirus testing site on the grounds of the Sussex County VA Community-Based Outpatient Clinic in Georgetown, Delaware, May 6, 2020.
Photo credit U.S. Army National Guard photo by Capt. Brendan Mackie

Active cases of the coronavirus among Department of Veterans Affairs patients and staff have reached levels not seen since the spike in cases in July, rising 77% in the last 30 days. 

A month ago, VA recorded 3,206 patients and staff actively ill from COVID-19. On Oct. 27, the department recorded more than 5,800 active cases, the vast majority of which are veteran patients. 

VA also surpassed 73,000 total cases on Tuesday, adding more than 12,000 cases so far this month. a 21% increase.

The department's total case count now approaches the total number of cases in several states, such as Kansas (73,007) and Connecticut (65,431), according to the most recently available Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. VA's total number of cases exceeds those recorded in 17 states. The department cares for a total of more than 9 million veterans, roughly half of the veterans in the United States, and has nearly 400,000 employees. 

Active cases at the department fell steadily for about two months before they began to rise again in late September. Department leaders said this summer they were preparing for a second wave of the virus during the fall and winter. 

Last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told military and veteran caregivers at an annual Elizabeth Dole Foundation event that the United States may have a "very difficult fall and winter" because of the pandemic. 

The surge in active cases at VA echoes a similar increase in cases across the country. 

"Trends in new cases generally reflect what is going on in the country and local communities," VA Press Secretary Christina Noel said on Tuesday.

Of VA's more than 73,000 cases, about 87% are considered convalescent, meaning they have either recovered or passed the 14-day mark since their last positive test. 

VA's overall mortality rate among patients of about 5.3% is still much higher than the overall American mortality rate of about 2.6%, according to CDC data.

VA recorded 3,901 total deaths as of Oct. 27, including 61 staff deaths from the coronavirus so far during the pandemic. VA added three more staff deaths on Tuesday. The last time the department recorded an employee's death was Oct. 9. Active cases among VA staff have risen more than 26% over the last week. 

So far in October, VA has recorded 465 deaths from complications of COVID-19, including four staff deaths. At that rate, the department could reach more than 530 deaths by November. 

Seven months since VA recorded its first veteran lost to the virus the department has averaged about 17 patient deaths per day, roughly equivalent to the rate of veteran suicide, according to VA data, which the president, lawmakers and advocates have all referred to as a "crisis" and a "top priority." 

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. VA's data also includes its staff and some non-veteran patients the department treated as part of its Fourth Mission.

The number of patients at the department who require hospitalization -- the statistic VA cites as the most reliable judge of how it's patients are faring amid the pandemic -- has consistently fallen since a height of 38% in March, to about 15% as of Oct. 19, Noel said.

But those numbers also appear to be rising in recent weeks. In the latest of VA's weekly pandemic response reports for Oct. 20-26, the department recorded 504 COVID-19 inpatients, a more than 46% increase since earlier this month. In early October, Noel said the department's hospitalization rate was about 13%, which means it has risen slightly over the course of the month and is now equal the overall rate from September, though still lower than prior months. 

The top 10 VA health systems with the most active cases are: Milwaukee (189); Minneapolis (150); North Chicago (126); Madison, Wisconsin (117); Fargo, North Dakota (117); Columbia, Missouri (104); Mountain Home, Tennessee (102); Nebraska-Western Iowa (97); Kansas City, Missouri (95); and Columbia, South Carolina (94). 

The North Chicago VA Healthcare System has recorded more than 2,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases during the pandemic. Of the 141 VA health systems the department is tracking in its publicly available data, at least 18 have recorded more than 1,000 confirmed cases.

The VA systems with the most deaths remain primarily 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. 

VA recorded 846,889 total COVID-19 tests administered nationwide during the pandemic. 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 have been more affected by COVID-19 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. 

Veterans Affairs surpasses 70,000 total COVID-19 cases, nears 3,800 deaths as active cases surge

About 17 VA patients have died of COVID-19 daily since the first veteran death 7 months ago

Active COVID-19 up nearly 50% at Veterans Affairs since September as illness spikes again

Black, Hispanic veterans twice as likely as white vets to test positive for COVID-19, VA study finds

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

Sign up for the Connecting Vets weekly newsletter to get more stories like this delivered to your inbox.