Since mid-March, no outsiders had been permitted to see these residents except for “compassionate cases,” when a veteran is 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. As of Wednesday, the VA had three active coronavirus cases across all of its nursing homes.
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.
As coronavirus deaths nationwide surpassed 225,000 people, the Veterans Affairs medical system — which includes both care homes and health care centers — exceeded 3,900 deaths, an increase of 156 in the past week. Those 3,901 deaths include only veterans diagnosed at VA hospitals and medical centers.
Since the pandemic began in mid-March, 61 workers in 42 facilities have died. The total includes six workers in the VA New Jersey Health Care System, with campuses in East Orange and Lyons, and three each at facilities in the District of Columbia; Indianapolis; and Reno, Nevada.
The VA has recorded more than 72,000 COVID-19 cases in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. That’s an increase of some 4,000 cases in seven days, for a total of 72,939, as of Tuesday.
A cluster of three VA facilities in the Chicago area are up to 3,670 cases — the most nationwide — adding 208 in a week. Cases in the New York City area during the same period rose by 21, to 2,953. Three centers in the Los Angeles area also showed a rise in cases (90 additional), bringing their total to 2,185.
Two VA centers in South Carolina added 98 cases in seven days, for a total of 2,563. In Florida two centers in the Tampa area have reached 2,263 cases, adding 92 since Oct. 20. Two centers in the Miami region are at 1,875 cases, adding 32 during the same time. Two Boston-area VA health care centers that had surging numbers early in the pandemic added 25 cases, for a total of 1,117.
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 Chinese cases.
Among individual health care centers, North Chicago tops the case counts, at 2,038 — 103 more than on Oct. 20 — but it has the third-highest number of active cases (at 126, an increase of eight from a week ago). Milwaukee surged back to having the most active cases, 188, which is 146 more than on Oct. 20. Minneapolis is No. 2 in active cases, with 147, an increase of 42; Fargo, North Dakota, is No. 4, at 115 cases, a rise of 50 in the same period.
Nearly 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 1,000 cases:
San Antonio, Texas, with 1,728 (36 more than on Oct. 20); Houston, with 1,692 (73 more); Orlando, Florida, with 1,608 (61 new cases); Atlanta, with 1,552 (41 additional); Phoenix, with 1,449 (50 more); Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System, a set of seven VA clinics in four southeast Texas cities, including Corpus Christi, with 1,404 (20 additional); and Gainesville, Florida, with 1,378 (39 more). New Orleans, an early hot spot after Mardi Gras in late February, added 16 cases, reaching 1,083. Dallas hit 1,071 cases, an increase of 71 from last week. The VA medical center in Temple, Texas, climbed to more than 1,000 total cases over the past week, reaching 1,041 and gaining 46 new cases.
Increased screening at VA med centers
VA medical centers across the country are taking precautions to screen patients, staff and visitors. Veterans with symptoms of COVID-19 are asked to call their health care facility if they have symptoms of the infection and 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.
One example: The Connecticut VA Healthcare System is funneling those who want to get inside to two entrances on each VA campus. Screening questions include whether guests have a fever or flu-like symptoms, where they've traveled in the past 14 days and what contact they've had with anyone confirmed to have the coronavirus.
Telemedical care is an option
If a VA client has a cough, fever and shortness of breath, the veteran is advised to call the local VA medical center and select the option to speak to a nurse before visiting. The client also is asked to consider using the VA's telehealth and virtual care options so that he or she 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.