COVID-19 cases among Veterans Health Administration patients have nearly tripled in the last month to more than 4,000. But Department of Veterans Affairs officials aren’t bringing back masks or recommending any significant changes in hospital or quarantine procedures, for now.
“The spikes are concerning,” said Dr. Shereef Elnahal, VA Under Secretary for Health, in a press call with reporters on Tuesday. “Thankfully, we have not seen signs of it overwhelming the system yet, but it’s something we monitor every day. And we want to make sure folks are aware that we are in the middle of another wave of COVID-19 with a new variant.”
As of Tuesday morning, VA officials reported 4,388 active cases of COVID-19 across 134 VA medical centers across America. That’s up from just 1,749 one month ago. Six sites are dealing with more than 100 active cases of the virus, including VA hospitals in Orlando and Bay Pines in Florida. Two other sites in the state — Tampa and Gainesville — have 97 active cases.
The spike in cases mirrors national trends. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that hospital admissions across the country for COVID-19 related illnesses are up more than 14% in the last week. Deaths of patients with the virus are up 10% over the same timeframe.
However, the total number of COVID-19 cases across the country and within VA are a small fraction of the infection rate during the height of the national pandemic, which began in spring 2020 and officially ended last May. In mid-August 2022, for example, VA reported more than 15,000 active cases of the virus among patients. In January 2022, the total topped 77,000 cases.
VA health officials earlier this year rescinded their mask mandates for all visitors and patients at department hospitals, put in place in an attempt to limit transmission of the virus. Elnahal said individuals may want to reconsider wearing masks at medical centers “on a personal basis” in response to the recent surge, but no mandates are expected for now.
He also said that health officials are better prepared to react to increased COVID caseloads now than in the past.
“Every medical center has a pandemic preparedness plan that accounts for their experiences during the pandemic, which was much more of an improvisation than a plan during the pandemic,” he said. “If we need to have more capacity, I’m confident we’ll be able to do that wherever we need to.”
At least 24,852 patients in the VA medical system have died from illnesses related to COVID-19 since March 2020. That’s a rate of about 20 individuals a day.
However, many of those deaths came at the height of the pandemic. Since Jan. 1 of this year, VA officials have reported 1,106 deaths linked to the virus, a rate of about five a day.
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.