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 612,000, the Veterans Affairs medical system (which includes care homes and health care centers) exceeded 12,700 deaths, an increase of 282 in a month. Those 12,739 deaths include only veterans diagnosed at VA hospitals and medical centers.
Since the pandemic began in mid-March 2020, 148 workers in 76 VA facilities have died. The total includes six workers in the VA system in Indiana, New Jersey and Reno, Nevada.
The VA has recorded more than 275,000 COVID-19 cases in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. That’s an increase of 9,539 cases in a month, for a total of 275,409 cumulative cases as of Friday.
A cluster of three VA facilities in the Los Angeles area has up to 10,767 cases (the most nationwide), adding 364 over the past month. Cases in the New York City region during the same period rose by 57, to 6,375. Three centers in the Chicago area also showed a jump in cases (an additional 107), bringing their total to 9,491.
Two VA centers in South Carolina added 153 cases over the month, for a total of 7,828. In Florida, two centers in the Tampa region have reached 7,390 cases, adding 529 since June 30. Two centers in the Miami area have 4,619 cases, adding 311 during the same period. Two Boston-area VA health care centers that had surging numbers early in the pandemic added 43 cases, for a total of 3,146.
Fewer recently diagnosed veterans are dying than in the early days of the U.S. outbreaks, because doctors and researchers have learned more about how coronavirus infections behave and because of the VA’s distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. When patients die, it generally doesn’t occur until about 18 days after symptoms appear, according to March 2020 studies of early COVID-19 cases in China.
Among individual health care centers, Cleveland tops the case count, at 5,257 — 53 more than on June 30 — and it has the 55th-highest number of active cases: 28, an increase of 10 from one month ago. Orlando has the most active cases, with 351 (319 more). 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 Orlando, Florida, with 5,162 (557 more cases than on June 30); Atlanta, with 4,861 (134 more); Phoenix, with 4,783 (137 more); San Antonio, with 4,781 (246 more); Gainesville, Florida, with 4,589 (454 more); Houston, with 4,529 (276 more); Dallas, with 4,287 (144 more); Middle Tennessee medical center with 4,144 (102 more); and Temple, Texas, with 4,095 (200).
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.