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More than 10,000 VA patients, 128 employees have now died of coronavirus

Dr. Richard Stone, acting VA undersecretary for health, says research has shown that a high percentage of patients -- as many as 85% -- want a coronavirus vaccine.

STARS AND STRIPES

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 17, 2021

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WASHINGTON – The coronavirus has killed 10,000 Department of Veterans Affairs patients – a grim milestone just 11 months after the first veteran’s death was reported.

A 70-year-old man at the VA hospital in Portland, Ore., was the first VA patient and the first person in Oregon to die of the virus, on March 14. As of Wednesday – 340 days later – 10,059 VA patients and 128 employees have died, about 30 deaths per day.

Active cases of the virus were falling across the VA system after peaking last month in what experts called a “second wave” of infections related to the holiday season. Death rates were also slowing. The department reached a high point in mid-January, with more than 1,100 VA patients dying during a two-week period. In contrast, about 650 patients died during the first two weeks of February.

The VA’s data reflects global trends. The World Health Organization reported Tuesday that new coronavirus cases fell for the fifth consecutive week, and deaths fell 10% from last week. The ebb comes as countries continue their rollouts of coronavirus vaccines.

The VA has established 215 vaccination sites cross the United States. As of Wednesday, the department had administered vaccines to more than 1.8 million people, 1 million of whom were veterans. The rest were VA employees or other federal workers. Of the 1.8 million people, 550,000 have received both doses, making them fully vaccinated.

The four locations that have administered the most vaccines to patients are all in Florida, which, along with California and Texas, has the highest population of veterans in the country. Orlando reported the most vaccinations, with almost 40,000 veterans receiving at least one dose.

Poplar Bluff, Mo., had administered the fewest vaccines, with about 2,100 veterans receiving at least one dose.

The VA said Wednesday that it had made progress through the first phase of vaccine rollout and is working through the second phase, which includes vaccinating veterans age 75 and older. The first phase focused on VA health care workers and residents of the department’s community living centers. Some sites are vaccinating patients younger than 75 as the supply permits.

Richard Stone, acting VA undersecretary for health, has been leading the department’s vaccine rollout. He started the effort under former President Donald Trump’s administration. President Joe Biden retained Stone in his position.

“VA guidance encourages local flexibility to maximize COVID-19 vaccine access and efficiency while limiting potential vaccine waste,” Stone said in a statement Wednesday. “In this limited supply phase, our COVID-19 vaccination strategy is balancing site-specific resources, facility needs, vaccine availability and status of the pandemic locally, as well as strict storage, handling and transportation parameters of available vaccines.”

The VA wants to provide vaccines to all veterans and employees who want them – which could be millions more people. The agency’s research has shown that a high percentage of patients – as many as 85% – want a vaccine, Stone said. More than 9 million veterans are enrolled in VA health care. The department is also vaccinating employees and veteran caregivers, and it has been called on to vaccinate other federal workers, including some staff of the Department of Homeland Security.

Stone estimated that the VA would be able to vaccinate lower-risk populations of veterans by the end of March.

Wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling