Active coronavirus cases within the Department of Veterans Affairs hit new pandemic highs this week, with no indication that the problem will abate heading into 2022.
As of Thursday morning, VA officials recorded more than 27,000 active cases among patients, employees and veterans in department care spread out across 140 department medical centers.
It’s the third consecutive day of record highs for the department in active cases. Prior to this week, the most VA had reported in a single day was Jan. 11 of this year, during the second major wave of virus spread, when the department had just under 21,000 cases.
As recently as mid-November, VA had fewer than 6,000 cases across its healthcare network. But the rapid advance of the Omicron variant of the virus has led to a worldwide spike in cases, and a return to some pandemic restrictions.
VA officials are seeing a dramatic rise not just among patients but also among staff.
In the last five days, more than 2,900 employees have reported new infections, according to data released by the department. In the 20 days prior, only about 2,800 staffers had reported COVID cases.
The rise in cases at the department mirrors the spike in cases across America. Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the average number of new coronavirus cases last week topped 240,000, with daily totals hitting new record highs several times.
VA leaders have repeatedly noted that unlike the Department of Defense — whose personnel are at least partially contained on military bases — their patient and staff population are part of the broader American public, making it vulnerable to the same infection swings.
At least 17,700 individuals in the VA medical system have died from coronavirus-related conditions since the start of the pandemic in America in March 2020. That equates to roughly 26 deaths a day.
Of that total, about 30 percent — more than 5,200 — have died since July 1 of this year, after vaccines for the virus were made widely available.
VA officials have not released data on how many deaths were among unvaccinated patients, but have noted in recent months they have seen higher infection rates for unvaccinated individuals.
However, VA patients are more likely to be older and have additional health concerns, making them more vulnerable to the virus and other infections. About 4 percent of all confirmed VA COVID cases have resulted in death, compared to less than 2 percent of all coronavirus cases across America.
VA leaders have mandated that all department employees get vaccinated against the virus in an attempt to limit the chance of spread among patients and visitors to VA hospitals. Suspensions and firings related to refusal of that mandate are scheduled to begin next month.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.