500,000 veterans vaccinated at VA as deadliest month of pandemic draws to a close

World War II Army veteran John Stephens, 96, receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a Veterans Affairs long-term care facility on December 17, 2020 in Vancouver, Washington. Patients in long-term care facilities began receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in Oregon in December.
World War II Army veteran John Stephens, 96, receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a Veterans Affairs long-term care facility on December 17, 2020 in Vancouver, Washington. Patients in long-term care facilities began receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in Oregon in December. Photo credit Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images

The Department of Veterans Affairs has provided at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to about half a million veterans so far as VA closes out the deadliest month of the coronavirus pandemic for its patients and staff so far.

An internal VA dashboard tracking vaccine distribution and supply at VA shows that so far, about 500,000 veterans have received at least one dose of one of two approved vaccines as of Jan. 28. More than a quarter-million VA staff have received at least one vaccine dose.

VA had an inventory of about 547,000 vaccine doses as of Thursday, according to the dashboard, though some of those may have already been spoken for with appointments scheduled Friday and moving forward. Each medical center within the sprawling department -- America's largest healthcare system -- has a different supply of vaccines depending on need, and is distributing them to different priority groups, including those 75 and older, 65 and older, those with pre-existing conditions putting them at greater risk and those who are essential workers.

VA cares for roughly 9 million veterans, about half the total number in the United States. Earlier this month, VA requested an increase in the number of vaccines it is allocated, but that request was denied by Operation Warp Speed officials, according to an internal VA memo obtained by Connecting Vets.

VA is still not being provided more doses of the vaccine than it has already been allotted each week, according to internal documents obtained by Connecting Vets.

In a series of "key COVID vaccine updates," department officials noted that there is "no immediate increase in VA allocation expected." The current nationwide vaccine supply stands at about 8.6 million doses per week, but "by March: anticipate increase to 16 (million) doses per week," the documents read.

At least in part because of the anticipated continued scarcity of vaccines for now, VA is considering several changes to how it administers the doses when they are severely limited.

The documents also show VA is considering extending the time between first and second doses of the vaccine from the recommended three to four weeks for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, respectively, to up to 6 weeks (42 days) after the first dose "if it is not feasible to adhere to the recommended interval."

VA is also considering "in exceptional situations" giving patients two different vaccines for the first and second doses.

"In exceptional situations in which the first-dose vaccine product cannot be determined or is no longer available, any available mRNA COVID-19 vaccine may be administered at a minimal interval of 28 days between doses to complete the mRNA COVID-19 vaccination series," according to the documents.

VA patients who have been infected with the COVID-19 virus may also choose to "temporarily delay vaccinations if desired" while vaccine supplies are limited, the documents read.

More than 4,000 patient deaths since Thanksgiving

January is by far the deadliest month of the pandemic for VA patients and staff.

December previously was the deadliest month, with about 1,500 patient deaths recorded and 21 staff deaths. But as of Jan. 29, with still two days to go in the month, VA recorded 2,299 patient deaths and 25 employee deaths, according to the department's publicly available data.

More than 1,100 of those deaths came within the last two weeks alone and January so far makes up more than a quarter of all VA patient deaths during the pandemic, which totaled 8,906 as of Friday. Nearly half of VA patient deaths have been recorded in last 70 days. VA said previously that the number of deaths recorded in a given month may not be a fully accurate account of those who died that month, since data may lag behind, sometimes by weeks.

But with those grim milestones come some hopeful news as active cases and hospitalizations fall at the department.

Active cases at VA spiked sharply in the first half of January, but now have fallen to levels not seen since mid-November. As of Friday, VA recorded more than 11,500 patients and staff actively sick because of the virus.

Hospitalizations have also fallen in the past two weeks, from a three-month high of 1,573 in the first full week of January to 1,343 as of last week, down nearly 15%.

VA officials have repeatedly cited the percentage of patients who require hospitalization as the most reliable judge of how patients are faring amid the pandemic, and that number has consistently fallen since a height of 38% in March to 12% in both November and December.

While VA has recorded a significant spike in total number of patients who have died because of the virus, VA's overall mortality rate continues to decrease. In October, it was about 5.5%. So far in January, it has reached about 4.3%, which is still significantly higher than the about 1.7% for Americans overall, according to the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Earlier during the pandemic, VA's mortality rate reached a high of nearly 6.8%.

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.

Black, Hispanic and other minority VA patients remain among those disproportionately affected by the virus. While the groups together make up about 23% of all VA patients, VA's publicly available COVID-19 data shows they make up 30% of all department virus cases.

White veterans remain less affected by the virus compared to other groups, making up about 72% of VA's total patients but 54% of VA's total coronavirus cases, which reached more than 206,000 as of Friday.

For more information on the coronavirus vaccine at VA, or to sign up to be notified of vaccine eligibility, go to www.va.gov/health-care/covid-19-vaccine.

Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

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Featured Image Photo Credit: Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images