8,000 Veterans Affairs patients have died of the coronavirus – 1,000 in the last 2 weeks

World War II Navy veteran Lawrence Doyle, 94, receives a COVID-19 vaccination 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 this week.
World War II Navy veteran Lawrence Doyle, 94, receives a COVID-19 vaccination 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 this week. Photo credit Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images
By Connecting Vets

The Department of Veterans Affairs reached yet another grim milestone Jan. 20 – 8,000 patient deaths, with more than 1,000 of those deaths recorded in the last two weeks.

January on track to become the deadliest month of the pandemic for VA patients, with 1,481 deaths recorded this month as of Jan. 20. 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. The more than 1,000 patient deaths recorded in the last two weeks represent more than 13% of VA's total patient deaths during the pandemic.

Deaths at the department are up about 31% in the last month, roughly coinciding with a sharp spike in active cases among VA patients and staff, though active cases hit a two-week low of more than 15,000 on Jan. 20.

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.

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. The total number of patients hospitalized also had been increasing up until last week. In the latest of VA's weekly pandemic response reports for Jan. 12-18, the department reported 1,508 COVID-19 inpatients, down slightly from the week prior but still up nearly 113% from November.

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 4.2%, 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.

January is also on track to become the deadliest month for VA staff, with 19 deaths already recorded this month. In all of December, 21 employee deaths were recorded. VA has so far refused to provide details on whether those workers were medical staff in contact with patients or other employees.

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.

The top 10 VA health systems with the most active cases are: Columbia, South Carolina (359); San Antonio (336); Loma Linda, California (336); Phoenix (335); Atlanta (332); Long Beach, California (313); Dallas (300); Los Angeles (281); Cleveland, Ohio (280); Gainesville, Florida (260).

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

On Jan. 18, VA announced it had provided more than 438,000 people at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine -- 224,000 veterans and 214,000 employees. Some VA facilities have opened eligibility up to veterans 65 and older and veterans who are also essential workers. VA also announced last week that some veteran caregivers are now eligible to receive the vaccine.

Federal officials still had not authorized additional allocation of the two approved vaccines for VA as of Jan. 20, though the department has requested more than it has been receiving so far since it has the refrigeration, staff and other infrastructure necessary to administer more.

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's public-facing COVID-19 data shows that Black and Hispanic veterans are still disproportionately affected by the virus.

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.