(Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON – One-quarter of all coronavirus deaths reported by the Department of Veterans Affairs occurred during the past month, data show.

As of Friday, the virus had killed 9,416 patients -- more than 2,300 who have died since Jan. 7. More than 1,100 VA patients have died in the past two weeks, making it the deadliest two-week period for veterans so far during the pandemic.

As the VA hit that milestone this week, the department also reached another: It administered vaccines to more than 1 million people. As of Friday, about 1.2 million VA patients and employees had received their first dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, and 457,000 had received both doses.

The department is vaccinating veterans and workers at 215 sites nationwide, but its supply is limited. The VA is expecting many sites to temporarily run out of vaccines, according to a statement.

Richard Stone, acting undersecretary of the Veterans Health Administration, said during a virtual town-hall meeting Thursday that the department was still focused on vaccinating high-risk veterans, including those age 75 and older – and 65 and older in some parts of the U.S. that have more available doses. He estimated that the agency will be able to vaccinate lower-risk populations of veterans by the end of March.

“All of us want to get through this last mile of this pandemic, and it’s going to seem like an awful long mile, waiting for the vaccine to come,” Stone said. “But none of us will able to resume our lives and do the things we want to do until we get to the point of at least 60% to 70% of the US population immunized.”

Stone said the agency’s research has shown that a high percentage of VA patients – as many as 85% – want a coronavirus vaccine. 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.

VA health care workers were some of the first people to receive a vaccine.

“Our employees who have been on the front lines of this pandemic for the past year have lined up to get this vaccine,” Stone said Thursday during the virtual town-hall meeting. “It’s an extraordinary testament to the fact that we believe it’s safe and we’re lining up to get it ourselves.”

For the first time this week, the VA began sharing its data on vaccine distribution, including a breakdown by VA facility. The information will be updated daily.

Vaccine distribution varies widely by location, the new data show. The VA hospital in Orlando, Fla., had vaccinated the most veterans as of Friday, with 19,311 having received the first dose and 7,497 getting the second. Spokane, Washington, had vaccinated the fewest. There, only 1,147 veterans had received the first dose, and none had received both doses. 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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