En español | The number of veterans infected daily with COVID-19 and admitted to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals has reached an all time high, department secretary Denis McDonough announced at a news conferences Tuesday.
VA medical facilities had more than 300 admissions in 24-hour periods on January 10, 11 and 12 due to the explosion of the omicron variant across the country. Meanwhile, 15,000 VA health care employees were unable to work due to the virus, exceeding the previous high of 6,000 in December 2020.
"Despite these challenges, our health care workers have stepped up once again, making staffing adjustments and increasing telehealth to ensure that vets are getting the world class care they need and deserve," said McDonough, reiterating the need for everyone to get fully vaccinated and boosted.
Total case numbers in VA system
As coronavirus deaths nationwide surpassed 854,000, the VA medical system (which includes care homes and health care centers) exceeded 18,400 deaths, an increase of 1,677 in 50 days. Those 18,491 deaths include only veterans diagnosed at VA hospitals and medical centers.
Since the pandemic began in mid-March 2020, 243 workers in 103 VA facilities have died. The total includes 11 workers at the VA system in Indiana and eight in New Jersey.
The VA has recorded more than 528,000 COVID-19 cases in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. That’s an increase of 143,686 cases in 50 days, for a total of 528,684 cumulative cases as of Jan. 19, an increase of more than 27 percent since the pandemic began.
A cluster of three VA facilities in the Los Angeles area has up to 19,507 cases (the most nationwide), adding 6,299 over the past 50 days. Cases in the New York City region during the same period rose by 3,531 to 10,772. Three centers in the Chicago area also showed a jump in cases (an additional 4,261), bringing their total to 15,165.
Two VA centers in South Carolina added 3,079 cases over the month, for a total of 14,019. In Florida, two centers in the Tampa region have reached 16,527 cases, adding 4,754 since Nov. 30. Two centers in the Miami area have had 9,427 cases, adding 2,950 during the same period. Two Boston-area VA health care centers that had surging numbers early in the pandemic added 2,412 cases, for a total of 6,188.
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.
Among individual health care centers, Orlando tops the case count, at 11,647 — 3,567 more than on Nov. 30. It also has the highest number of active cases: 1,722, an increase of 1,683 from 50 days ago. Bay Pines, Florida, has the second-highest number of active cases, with 1,707 (an increase of 1,658). The health care center in Long Beach, California, is third in active cases, at 1,296 (1,267 more).
Mask policy in VA facilities
The VA is following advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that says everyone should wear a mask indoors in parts of the country with substantial or high levels of virus transmission. This includes people who are fully vaccinated.
Mask policies at different VA locations:
- VA health care facilities: Anyone who enters hospitals, clinics or Vet Centers must wear a mask that covers their mouth and nose. Staff will instruct fully vaccinated people on whether it’s safe to remove their mask during a visit.
- Indoors at other VA locations: Visitors will be asked to wear a mask in locations where there is a substantial or high level of transmission. VA staff will explain each location’s policy upon arrival. You may check your county’s level of coronavirus infections here.
- Outdoors at VA national cemetery: Only those who are not fully vaccinated are asked to wear a cloth mask and follow distancing guidelines.
For other frequently asked questions, visit the VA’s coronavirus FAQ page.
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.
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.
Visitation policies at VA nursing homes, spinal injury centers
The 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 had 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 were among the first who will be vaccinated within the VA system.
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.