Active coronavirus cases among Veterans Affairs patients topped 5,000 on Sunday, the first time the total has surpassed that mark since the department’s massive spike in cases in mid-summer.

The number of active cases has doubled in the last 40 days, reflecting national trends showing an increase in virus cases in recent weeks. More than 72,000 VA patients have contracted the illness in the last eight months.

VA leadership has repeatedly dismissed concerns about the rising number of active cases, insisting that the hospitalization rate among those patients remains at a low percentage of individuals.

However, the number of inpatients at VA facilities with coronavirus complications has increased by nearly one-third in the last month, reaching 445 in the department’s last public update.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported more than 8.5 million cases among all Americans (about 2.5 percent of the total U.S. population) and nearly 225,000 deaths related to the illness.

The 5,000-plus active VA cases are spread over 139 separate medical centers nationwide. Department hospitals in Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Chicago currently have the highest counts of active cases.

About 88 percent of all positive coronavirus cases within the VA system have recovered and about 7 percent are still active. However, at least 3,830 VA patients — more than 5 percent — have died from complications related to the virus since the start of March.

The more than 5 percent of VA patients who eventually succumbed to complications related to the illness is significantly above the roughly 3 percent death rate among all Americans infected by the pandemic.

However, VA officials have discouraged comparing their patient population to the rest of the country, noting the increased dangers the virus presents to individuals who are elderly and infirm, two descriptors that encompass many of the department’s patients.

In addition to the patient deaths, at least 58 VA employees have also died of complications related to the virus. Department medical staff have administered more than 820,000 virus tests since the start of the pandemic, with about 8.5 percent of all tests resulting in a confirmed diagnosis.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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