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Funeral folded flag performed at a funeral for veterans with full military honors.
Funeral folded flag performed at a funeral for veterans with full military honors. (Christopher S. Muncy/U.S. Air National Guard)

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WASHINGTON – More than 7,000 Department of Veterans Affairs patients had died of the coronavirus as of Thursday – equating to about 24 people killed each day since the first veteran’s death in March.

The VA reported 7,099 total deaths Thursday and nearly 16,000 active coronavirus cases. Only seven days into the new year, January is already on pace to be the agency’s deadliest month.

About 1,300 VA patients died of the virus in December, and the year ended with 6,500 dead VA patients. The department has recorded about 600 deaths in January with 24 days to go.

In addition, the VA has reported 13 employee deaths so far this month, bringing the total employee deaths to 104. December was previously the deadliest month for employees, with 16 deaths.

Deaths and cases are increasing at the same time the department is working to vaccinate its health care staff and most vulnerable patients. The VA had administered 146,000 vaccines as of this week, including to 132,000 health care workers and 14,000 veterans. The vaccines are being administered at 195 VA sites across the country.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has praised the pace of his agency’s efforts to vaccinate employees and veterans.

“This is a massive undertaking that is happening at a rapid pace,” Wilkie said in a statement Tuesday.

Other officials, though, have acknowledged that vaccine distribution has gotten off to a sluggish start. About 2 million Americans received their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine by the end of 2020, falling far short of expectations that 20 million people would be vaccinated by that time.

“We agree that number is lower than what we hoped for,” Dr. Moncef Slaoui, chief adviser to Operation Warp Speed, said Dec. 30. “We know it should be better, and we’re working to make it better.”

The VA is first vaccinating residents and staff of the agency’s long-term community living centers, as well as spinal cord injury centers. After that phase, the VA will shift its focus to vaccinating VA employees who treat coronavirus patients.

Of the nearly 16,000 active coronavirus cases among VA patients Thursday, the facilities reporting the highest numbers were in Loma Linda and Long Beach, California. The numbers reflect nationwide trends showing multiple days of record-setting coronavirus deaths in those areas.

The VA’s data on cases and deaths does not include all veterans in the United States, nor does it include the hundreds of deaths that have occurred at 162 state-run veterans’ homes.

Because of a bill signed into law this week, the VA is required to publicize coronavirus deaths and cases at state-run veterans’ homes for the first time by Feb. 4.

Wentling.nikki@stripes.com Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.
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