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Veterans Affairs System Coronavirus Deaths Top 14,900; Cases Are Above 340,000

Masking, COVID-19 screening policies vary among VA locations

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 | As coronavirus deaths nationwide surpassed 695,900, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical system (which includes care homes and health care centers) exceeded 14,900 deaths, an increase of 1,305 in a month. Those 14,910 deaths include only veterans diagnosed at VA hospitals and medical centers.

Since the pandemic began in mid-March 2020, 203 workers in 93 VA facilities have died. The total includes nine workers at the VA system in Indiana and seven each in New Jersey and a facility in Dallas.

The VA has recorded more than 340,000 COVID-19 cases in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. That’s an increase of 27,244 cases in a month, for a total of 340,544 cumulative cases as of Sept. 30.

A cluster of three VA facilities in the Los Angeles area has up to 12,386 cases (the most nationwide), adding 506 over the past month. Cases in the New York City region during the same period rose by 192, to 6,897. Three centers in the Chicago area also showed a jump in cases (an additional 267), bringing their total to 10,319.


For the latest coronavirus news and advice go to AARP.org/coronavirus.


Two VA centers in South Carolina added a whopping 1,165 cases over the month, for a total of 10,062. In Florida, two centers in the Tampa region have reached 10,811 cases, adding 1,134 since Aug. 30. Two centers in the Miami area have 6,022 cases, adding 460 during the same period. Two Boston-area VA health care centers that had surging numbers early in the pandemic added 154 cases, for a total of 3,435.

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 7,628 — 685 more than on Aug. 30. Cleveland has the most number of active cases: 240, an increase of 72 from one month ago. Houston has the second-most active cases, with 179 (a decrease of 284). The health care center in Gainesville, Florida, has the third-most active cases, at 171 (316 less).

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.

Mask policy in VA facilities

In response to the growing number of infections from the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus, 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.

To make an appointment, veterans should message their provider or call their local VA facility.  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.

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.

 

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