Facing surge of patients, New Orleans VA transfers veterans to Mississippi

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 31, 2020

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WASHINGTON — Veterans are being transferred from the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in New Orleans to facilities in Mississippi as coronavirus cases in southeast Louisiana continue to grow.

The New Orleans VA Medical Center had tested 258 positive cases of the virus Tuesday, more than triple the number reported by the New York Harbor Healthcare System, which had the next-largest number of cases. New York Harbor serves Manhattan and Brooklyn and reported 72 cases Tuesday.

Of the 258 patients who tested positive in New Orleans, 32 were admitted to the hospital. Nine veterans died at the hospital in a two-day span last week, the VA reported. They were veterans in their 60s, 70s and 80s.

Because of the concentration of cases in New Orleans, the facility decided to preemptively transfer some patients to the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System in Biloxi, Miss., and the G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery VA Medical Center in Jackson, Miss., said Phil Walls, a spokesman for the New Orleans hospital.

The Biloxi hospital, about 90 miles from New Orleans, had reported no coronavirus cases as of Tuesday. Three veterans had tested positive in Jackson, which is about 200 miles away.

The patients being transferred do not have coronavirus and are not under intensive care.

“These moves will ensure the veterans medical center in New Orleans maintains enough capacity to accommodate existing and future COVID-19 patients,” Walls said.

Louisiana has experienced a sharp increase in coronavirus cases. The state reported more than 5,000 positive cases Tuesday and 239 deaths. Gov. John Bel Edwards extended a stay-at-home order for the state through April 30.

Before the first case was diagnosed at the New Orleans VA Medical Center, hospital leadership established a command center to coordinate the response across southeast Louisiana, Walls said. The facility also established a negative airflow ward for patients with coronavirus in order to prevent contamination from escaping.

As with VA facilities nationwide, the New Orleans hospital prohibited visitors, canceled elective surgeries and is screening patients and employees who enter the facility.

Walls said he couldn’t speculate as to why the hospital had reported more positive cases than other VA locations.

The VA reported 1,347 positive cases across the country Tuesday. Of those, 313 patients had been admitted to VA hospitals.

Forty-one veterans had died — an increase of 14 from Monday. The newly reported deaths were in New Orleans, the Bronx; Brooklyn; Indianapolis; San Francisco; Wichita, Kan.; Milwaukee, Wis.; Minneapolis; and Madison, Wis. The veterans ranged in age from their 50s to their 80s.

The VA operates 172 medical centers and treats more than 9 million veterans, many of whom are thought to be at higher risk for the virus because of their age and underlying health conditions.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said this week he sent mobile units to New Orleans, as well as New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The units provide counseling to veterans and help them coordinate their health care. 

Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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