7,000 Veterans Affairs patients have died of the coronavirus as active cases reach record highs again

Resident Robert Goines receives the COVID-19 vaccination at the New Jersey Veterans Memorial Home at Menlo Park, Edison, N.J., Jan. 5, 2021. These are the first vaccinations administered at the Home under the Federal Pharmacy Program.
Resident Robert Goines receives the COVID-19 vaccination at the New Jersey Veterans Memorial Home at Menlo Park, Edison, N.J., Jan. 5, 2021. These are the first vaccinations administered at the Home under the Federal Pharmacy Program. Photo credit New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs photo by Mark C. Olsen
By Connecting Vets

The Department of Veterans Affairs has recorded more than 7,000 patient deaths from complications of the coronavirus as active cases reach record highs again.

On Jan. 6, VA reached 7,000 patient deaths and by Jan. 8 had recorded more than 7,100, an increase of more than 34% from this time last month.

The grim milestone of patient deaths comes at the same time VA is again recording record-high active cases of the coronavirus -- patients actively sick because of the virus. As of Jan. 8, VA recorded more than 18,000 active cases, the highest ever. The previous record was 17,757 on Dec. 11.

Active cases have spiked significantly for VA in January so far, increasing more than 70% in the first eight days of the month, the largest spike the department has recorded over such a short period of time.

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. But the total number of patients hospitalized also is increasing. In the latest of VA's weekly pandemic response reports for Dec. 29-Jan. 4, the department reported 1,497 COVID-19 inpatients, up about 42% since Dec. 1 and 147% since the beginning of November.

Active case surges at the department typically follow such patterns nationally, according to VA Press Secretary Christina Noel.

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.

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%. As of Jan. 8, it reached about 4%, 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%.

December was the deadliest month of the pandemic so far for VA patients and staff, with more than 1,500 patient deaths and 21 staff deaths recorded.

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.

Since VA cares for about half of the roughly 18 million veterans in America, its numbers are representative only of those in its care and do not include veterans who receive care elsewhere or who do not qualify for VA health care.

VA's publicly available data also includes its staff and some non-veteran patients the department treated as part of its Fourth Mission. VA has already recorded 10 staff deaths in January, for a total of 105 during the pandemic so far.

Active cases did reach a peak in December, but during the final weeks of 2020, the numbers were trending lower before surging again.

The top 10 VA health systems with the most active cases are: Loma Linda, California (408); Columbia, South Carolina (404); Phoenix (401); San Antonio (374); Long Beach, California (374); Dallas (358); Los Angeles (357); Cleveland, Ohio (353); Atlanta (343); Temple, Texas (333).

The VA health systems that have recorded the most deaths during the pandemic include those in Minneapolis; Cleveland; New Jersey; Phoenix; Columbia, South Carolina; New York; Texas; and and Boston. Those with the most confirmed cases were North Chicago; Cleveland; Phoenix; San Antonio; Columbia, South Carolina; Orlando; Houston; Atlanta; Loma Linda, California; and Minneapolis.

On Jan. 5, VA announced it had administered more than 146,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses -- most to medical staff.

More than 14,000 high-risk veterans had received their first of two vaccine doses. More than 132,000 VA staff had also received their first doses, or roughly a third of VA's total workforce.

VA initially rolled out the Pfizer vaccine to 37 locations and expanded to 128 more of its medical centers when the Moderna vaccine was approved.

According to its vaccine plan, VA is administering doses to frontline healthcare workers and veterans in its community living centers and spinal cord injury/disorder centers first to protect those most at risk and prevent further spread. Some VA facilities this week were already notifying veterans that they were moving on to the next priority group -- veterans older than 75.

VA leaders admitted to Congress in December ahead of the vaccine rollouts that initial supplies would fall woefully short of the millions of vaccines the department will need for all veterans who need or want it, along with thousands of staff.

Despite the severely limited supplies of the vaccine, internal VA communications obtained by Connecting Vets in December showed the department's plans to waste additional doses of the Pfizer vaccine from overfilled vials containing as many as one to two extra full doses, specifically despite Food and Drug Administration authorization. VA also did not plan to track the doses it discarded.

Following Connecting Vets' report, VA announced it had reversed its decision and would follow FDA authorization for the use of additional full doses found in individual vials.

In emails to veterans in recent weeks, VA has asked for volunteers for further study of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which could become the next approved in the United States. VA is asking especially for veterans of color, or those older than 65 -- populations at particular risk, according to department data. VA has also warned veterans of vaccine scams and cautioned them to avoid providing personal information to anyone they don't know.

“This is a massive undertaking that is happening at rapid pace,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement Jan. 5. “This week, the initial 37 sites that received the first limited Pfizer-BioNTech allocations are beginning to administer the second dose.”

Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett. Sign up for the Connecting Vets weekly newsletter to get more stories like this delivered to your inbox.