More than 1,000 people have died of coronavirus infections at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals, the agency reported Monday, a grim milestone that took 65 days to officially reach — but leaves out hundreds of others who died in state-run homes.
VA reported 1,012 deaths on its tracking site, with more than 700 logged as veterans who died during inpatient care at VA's sprawling network of veteran hospitals. The remaining deaths were recorded elsewhere but reported to VA, agency spokeswoman Christina Noel said last week.
But Noel acknowledged VA's count does not include veterans who have died at state-run veterans homes. That death count is at least 550, according to Vietnam Veterans of America, an advocacy group collecting nationwide data for a forthcoming report.
And even then, 28 states are not reporting veteran deaths, making the cumulative total unknown, said Linda Schwartz, a special adviser to the group and a former VA assistant secretary for policy and planning.
"VA grieves for all of the Veterans and loved ones affected by this heartbreaking situation," Noel said, noting the death count would include civilians enrolled in VA care in humanitarian cases, patients with military health care and active duty service members.
Noel did not provide a breakdown of those cases, though the overwhelming majority would be among the 9.5 million veterans enrolled in VA care.
Only one active duty service member has died of coronavirus — a sailor aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt who died in a Naval hospital in Guam last month. A National Guard soldier died in a civilian hospital in March before he was mobilized. And VA has only cared for a handful of civilians after its emergency response mission was activated.
Veterans advocates pointed to the deaths as a reminder of the greater toll on the community.
"Not only are veterans generally at greater risk of contracting and having complications from coronavirus due to age and underlying conditions but the pandemic is quickly worsening an already troubling veteran homelessness, mental health and unemployment crisis," Jeremy Butler, the chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told The Washington Post on Monday.
Cancellations of many nonemergency appointments have triggered dramatic increases in video-based mental health appointments at VA. Some homeless veteran shelters have halted new enrollments to help curb the spread.
U.S. Vets, a national nonprofit focused on permanent housing, has screened and enrolled homeless veterans into its program amid the pandemic, said Clifton Lewis, the executive director of the group's facility in Washington, D.C.
A 70-year old veteran in Portland died of an infection on March 14, becoming the first coronavirus victim within VA's network of 1,200 medical facilities.
The pace then accelerated. VA recorded only 30 infections among veterans in mid-March. Dozens more would be dead by the end of the month as the virus made the leap from patient to caretaker. More than 2,000 VA staffers have been infected, with at least 30 staffer deaths, VA reported.