The number of coronavirus cases among Veterans Affairs patients continued its steady rise over the weekend as department officials acknowledged supply shortages at VA hospitals because of protective equipment being diverted to the national stockpile.
Cases topped 6,900 over the weekend, an increase of almost 7 percent from midday Friday and a rise of more than 26 percent in the previous week. Nationwide, 140 separate VA medical centers have recorded at least one case of the fast-spreading illness.
So far, 435 patients have died from complications related to the illness. On April 4, that number was under 100.
VA’s continued upward climb in cases comes as some major metropolitan areas have reported a leveling off of the coronavirus spread, prompting discussions about re-opening some businesses and civic services.
More than 1,900 VA employees have also tested positive for the illness, and 20 have died, prompting criticism from employee advocates and union officials that leadership has not done enough to protect them as they treat veterans.
On Saturday, in an interview in the Washington Post, Veterans Health Administration acting executive Richard Stone acknowledged that some hospitals have been forced into “austerity levels” as Federal Emergency Management Agency officials have diverted planned supplies to the government’s emergency stockpile.
He also admitted that testing for employees had lagged but insisted in the interview that the situation is improving.
The death rate among VA patients who have contracted the virus is more than 6 percent, a figure that has risen as high as 6.5 percent over the last few weeks. In early April, fewer than 4 percent of patients battling the illness eventually died from it.
Nationally, the rate of death among all patients who test positive for coronavirus has risen to more than 5.5 percent. That level was also about 4 percent in early April, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The VA patient population being tested and treated for coronavirus may be more vulnerable to the illness because it is significantly older and less healthy than the American population as a whole. Medical experts have said that elderly and infirm individuals are particularly susceptible to fatal respiratory issues connected to the virus.
Over the weekend, VA’s Harbor Healthcare System in New York City passed the New Orleans VA medical center as the location with the most coronavirus cases. The New York site has at least 476 cases as of Monday morning. The Louisiana site, which has been the hardest-hit location for the last month, now has 459 cases.
Two other New York City-area sites — the Bronx VA medical center and the East Orange site in New Jersey — also have more than 400 cases. Each of those four sites have also have more than 30 deaths.
So far, 72 Veterans Affairs sites have seen at least one death connected to coronavirus.
Among all Americans, more than 928,000 individuals have contracted the fast-spreading virus and more than 52,000 have died from the illness.
Public efforts to limit the spread of the sickness have also contributed to widespread economic problems throughout the country. The Department of Labor is expected to release its April unemployment estimates this Friday.
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.