En español | The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is allowing guests to visit some of its 134 nursing homes and 24 spinal cord injury centers, depending on local coronavirus restrictions.
Since last year no outsiders have been permitted to see residents except for “compassionate cases,” meaning those veterans in the last stages of life in hospice.
The VA created safety guidelines for admission to its nursing homes, referred to as community living centers (CLCs), to ensure that veterans are not positive for COVID-19.
For admission to spinal cord injury and disorder centers, veterans should contact their nearest location to see if new patients are being accepted. All staff members are being screened daily and are among the first who will be vaccinated within the VA system.
As coronavirus deaths nationwide surpassed 550,000, the Veterans Affairs (VA) medical system — which includes both care homes and health care centers — exceeded 11,200 deaths, an increase of 298 in the past two weeks. Those 11,253 deaths include only veterans diagnosed at VA hospitals and medical centers.
Since the pandemic began in mid-March 2020, 136 workers in 75 VA facilities have died. The total includes six workers in the VA’s Indiana and New Jersey Health Care Systems and four each at facilities in Denver; central Alabama; Fayetteville, North Carolina; and Louisville, Kentucky.
The VA has recorded more than 242,400 COVID-19 cases in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. That’s an increase of 5,716 cases in two weeks, for a total of 242,498 cumulative cases as of Tuesday.
A cluster of three VA facilities in the Los Angeles area has up to 9,942 cases — the most nationwide — adding 151 in two weeks. Cases in the New York City area during the same period rose by 255, to 5,706. Three centers in the Chicago area also showed a jump in cases (an additional 160), bringing their total to 8,692.
Two VA centers in South Carolina added 167 cases in 14 days, for a total of 7,220. In Florida two centers in the Tampa area have reached 5,760 cases, adding 279 since March 2. Two centers in the Miami region have 3,853 cases, adding 98 during the same time. Two Boston-area VA health care centers that had surging numbers early in the pandemic added 76 cases, for a total of 2,877.
Fewer recently diagnosed veterans are dying than in the early days of the U.S. outbreaks, in part because doctors and researchers have learned more about how coronavirus infections behave. When patients do die, it generally doesn’t occur until about 18 days after symptoms appear, according to March studies of early COVID-19 cases in China.
Among individual health care centers, Cleveland tops the case count, at 4,747 — 122 more than on March 16 — and it has the third-highest number of active cases (88, an increase of 11 from two weeks ago). Atlanta and Orlando have the most active cases, with 94 each.
About 9 in 10 of the VA’s COVID-19 patients across the country are 14 days beyond their last positive test or have been home from the hospital for at least two weeks, the agency reports.
Additional VA medical centers with more than 4,000 confirmed cases are:
Phoenix, with 4,362 (70 more cases than on March 16); Atlanta, with 4,328 (145 more); San Antonio, with 4,187 (85 more); and Orlando, Florida, with 4,020 (126 more).
Increased screening at VA med centers
VA medical centers across the country are taking precautions to screen patients, staff and visitors. Veterans with coronavirus symptoms are asked to call their health care facility to report them; these clients may be directed to use telehealth so they won’t have to leave home.
Veterans who have appointments for other needs are advised to come early to allow time for screening. Everyone is being screened for signs of respiratory illness and coronavirus exposure.
To make an appointment, veterans should message their provider or call their local VA facility’s phone number. Certain appointments, such as mental health, can be made online through the VA’s appointment tool.
One example: The Connecticut VA Healthcare System is funneling those seeking access to two entrances on each VA campus. Screening questions include whether guests have a fever or flulike symptoms, where they’ve traveled in the past 14 days and whether they’ve had contact with anyone confirmed to have the coronavirus.
Remote medical care is an option
VA clients with a cough, fever and shortness of breath should call the local VA medical center and select the option to speak to a nurse before visiting. They are also asked to consider using the VA’s telehealth and virtual care options so that they can be evaluated without leaving home.
“We need to do that to make sure that those who use VA are protected, that they are cared for,” Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie said at the American Legion Winter Conference. “We will get over this, and we will make sure everything is done to protect those who have done so much for our country.”
Editor's note: This story, originally published March 11, 2020, has been updated to reflect increased coronavirus cases and visitation policies within the VA system.