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Veterans, Military and Their Families


Veterans Affairs System Coronavirus Deaths Top 7,300; Cases Are Above 181,000

Visitation policies vary at nursing homes, spinal cord injury centers

The Tibor Rubin Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Long Beach on Wednesday, July 31, 2019.

Scott Varley/MediaNews Group/Torrance Daily Breeze via Getty Images

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 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 and are among the first who will be vaccinated within the VA system.

As coronavirus deaths nationwide surpassed 377,000 people, the Veterans Affairs (VA) medical system — which includes both care homes and health care centers — exceeded 7,300 deaths, an increase of 465 in the past week. Those 7,386 deaths include only veterans diagnosed at VA hospitals and medical centers.

Since the pandemic began in mid-March, 105 workers in 62 facilities have died. The total includes six workers in the VA New Jersey Health Care System, with campuses in East Orange and Lyons; five in Indianapolis; and four each at facilities in Denver and Central Alabama.

The VA has recorded more than 181,000 COVID-19 cases in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. That’s an increase of 19,580 cases in a week, more than double the number of new cases when compared with the previous week, for a total of 181,871 cumulative cases as of Tuesday.

A cluster of three VA facilities in the Chicago area has up to 7,421 cases — the most nationwide — adding 303 in a week. Cases in the New York City area during the same period rose by 301, to 4,287. Three centers in the Los Angeles area also showed a steep rise in cases (1,002 additional), bringing their total to 7,329.

Two VA centers in South Carolina added 764 cases in seven days, for a total of 4,993. In Florida, two centers in the Tampa area have reached 4,295 cases, adding 395 since Jan. 5. Two centers in the Miami region have 2,898 cases, adding 217 during the same time. Two Boston-area VA health care centers that had surging numbers early in the pandemic added 210 cases, for a total of 2,145.

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, North Chicago tops the case counts, at 3,838 — 119 more than on Jan. 5, but it dropped to the 48th-highest number of active cases (145, an decrease of 77 from one week ago). Columbia, South Carolina, has the most active cases, with 426, which is 243 more than on Jan. 5. The Loma Linda health care center in California has the second-highest number of active cases, at 423 (116 fewer), and the Phoenix facility is number 3 in active cases, with 408 (144 more).

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 2,000 confirmed cases:

Cleveland, with 3,711 (441 more than on Jan. 5); Phoenix, with 3,166 (342 more); San Antonio, with 3,143 (409 new cases); Orlando, Florida, with 2,953 (313 more); Houston, with 2,860 (319 more); Atlanta, with 2,854 (316 more); Dallas, with 2,690 (403 more); Gainesville, Florida, with 2,689 (295 more); and Minneapolis, with 2,662 (142 more).

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.

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