Mini flags and balloons are placed around a sign at Holyoke Soldiers' Home in honor of the veterans who have died because of COVID-19 and to remember their service to the country.

Mini flags and balloons are placed around a sign at Holyoke Soldiers' Home in honor of the veterans who have died because of COVID-19 and to remember their service to the country. (Hoang Leon Nguyen, The Republican/TNS)

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WASHINGTON – The number of known deaths from the coronavirus among Department of Veterans Affairs patients exceeded 1,000 on Monday.

The department, which operates more than 150 hospitals across the country, reported its first coronavirus death March 14. Since then, at least 1,011 patients have died of the virus, the VA reported Monday. The death toll grew 16% in the past week.

The count includes veterans who’ve died at VA hospitals, as well as some VA patients who died at community hospitals or at home. It’s not a complete accounting of veteran deaths and doesn’t include deaths at state-run veterans homes, many of which have experienced outbreaks of the virus.

While the death toll continues to rise, the number of active coronavirus cases at the VA has decreased steadily in recent weeks. The VA reported 12,246 total cases Monday, and 2,033 of those patients were still sick with the virus. More than 9,000 patients have recovered, the VA said.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie announced Monday that 20 facilities would begin to offer health services unrelated to the coronavirus. To help prevent the spread of the virus and to free bed space for coronavirus patients, the VA has postponed all elective surgeries and encouraged people to use telehealth for the past two months.

Now, 20 sites will reintroduce in-person services, Wilkie said. Based on how the reopening goes at those sites, the department will begin to open more. It was unclear Monday how the sites were chosen. None of the locations were among the most affected by the virus.

Those facilities must still screen patients and implement social distancing measures, the VA said. Patients will be required to wear face coverings.

“The safety of veterans and staff is the highest priority when we consider how we provide health care services and procedures during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” Wilkie said in a statement. “VA will take into account guidance from various agencies including federal, state and local government as we gradually expand health care services.”

The safety of VA employees has caused controversy during the past two months. Before the VA secured enough personal protective equipment, facilities were forced to ration masks. Nurses protested at VA facilities nationwide.

As of Monday, more than 2,000 VA workers had contracted the virus and 30 had died. Six of those employees worked in New Jersey.

For veterans, the most deadly sites have been Manhattan, N.Y., with 92, followed by New Jersey with 84, the Bronx with 64, Boston with 48 and New Orleans with 42. Detroit, Indianapolis and Washington, D.C., have each reported 32 deaths.

VA hospitals in Chicago, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., are among the sites with the most remaining active cases of the virus. 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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