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The New Orleans VA Medical Center.

The New Orleans VA Medical Center. (VA)

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WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in New Orleans reported Monday that it had 65 patients who tested positive for the coronavirus – about 31% of the total number of cases it was tracking nationwide.

The VA had 204 cases across 50 locations Monday. Behind New Orleans, the locations with the most cases were Atlanta with 17, and New York City with 10.

A spokesman for the New Orleans VA Medical Center said it was unclear why the facility had so many more patients than other VA hospitals.

“We have seen a higher number of positive cases than other VA facilities, but we cannot speculate as to why at this point,” said Phil Walls, a public affairs specialist at the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie held a phone call with veterans organizations Sunday. Wilkie told the groups he had sent teams of medical professionals to help with the pandemic response in New York City. Wilkie was preparing to send more to New Orleans, said Joe Chenelly, national executive director of AMVETS, who was on the call.

Health officials in Louisiana said Monday there were 1,172 cases of the coronavirus in the state, 567 of them in New Orleans. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards issued a stay-at-home order, effective Monday.

The state had counted 34 deaths from the virus Monday. No deaths had been reported at the New Orleans VA.

Of the 65 coronavirus patients at the New Orleans VA, 44 were admitted to the hospital. Others – including the first veteran diagnosed at the New Orleans facility – have been discharged and returned home to recover, Walls said. He described the pandemic response as an “unprecedented challenge.”

Before the first case was diagnosed, 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.

Walls said the facility has the supplies and equipment needed to meet the surge of cases.

As with VA facilities nationwide, the New Orleans hospital prohibited visitors, canceled elective surgeries and is screening patients and employees who enter the facility. They’re asking any veterans with flu-like symptoms, such as coughing, fever and shortness of breath, to call (800) 935-8387 and select option 3 to speak to a health care provider before showing up to the hospital.

“We have a responsibility to protect patients, staff and the community during this spread, and will continue to use all available means to do so,” Walls said. “Veterans have earned the best health care anywhere. It’s our mission to deliver it.”

The VA, which operates 172 hospitals and serves more than 9 million veterans, reported Sunday that it had administered 1,524 coronavirus tests nationwide. There were two deaths as of Monday. A 70-year-old man died at the VA hospital in Portland, Ore., on March 14. A veteran in his mid-90s died March 19 at the White River Junction VA Medical Center in Vermont.

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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