(Stars and Stripes)

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WASHINGTON — More than 5,000 veterans are in recovery after becoming infected with the coronavirus, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported this week in its first public count of recovered patients.

As of Wednesday, 5,185 veterans and 760 VA employees were in recovery from the virus — about 65% of the department’s nearly 10,000 cases. The department defined being in recovery as having been discharged from the hospital or having made it 14 days after a positive coronavirus test and not needing hospitalization.

The number of recoveries was included in the VA’s dataset starting Monday, following a nearly four-day period during which the department posted no public updates about its coronavirus cases. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement that the data now shows “all known COVID-19 cases that are tested or treated in VA facilities.”

According to the new data, the VA’s death toll jumped 62% in one week, from 482 on April 29 to 779 on Wednesday. Besides VA inpatients, the count now includes VA patients who died at their homes or in community hospitals. Previously, those veterans were omitted from the department’s data.

The death toll doesn’t include VA employees. In a separate datasheet, the VA reported that 24 employees had died of the virus as of Tuesday.

During the same week, the total number of positive cases increased from 7,903 to 9,823. In addition to veterans and employees, the VA added in other people who were admitted to VA hospitals, including civilians, Tricare patients and active duty service members.

Thousands of veterans remain hospitalized with the virus. The New Jersey VA Health Carey System had 283 active cases as of Wednesday, followed by the New York Harbor Health Care System and the Philadelphia Health Care System, which each had 140. The North Chicago VA Health Care System and the VA in Washington, D.C., were each treating more than 100 coronavirus patients Wednesday.

The New York Harbor system, which encompasses parts of New York City, had experienced the most deaths, with 86. In New Jersey, 71 veterans had died, and 59 veterans had died at the Bronx VA. New Orleans, Detroit, Boston and Indianapolis each reported more than two dozen deaths at their facilities.

As part of its “fourth mission” to serve as America’s backup medical system during national crises, the department is helping to treat civilian patients in 38 states.

The VA has focused some of those efforts toward nursing homes, many of which have experienced outbreaks of the virus. More than 80 VA medical workers were sent to aid 26 nursing homes in Florida, and 90 VA nurses went to help two nursing homes in New Jersey. Other staff were sent to state-run nursing homes in Alabama, Massachusetts and Tennessee.

The department committed to opening 1,500 beds at VA hospitals to treat civilian patients. 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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