The number of Veterans Affairs patients with active cases of coronavirus hit its highest levels since the start of the pandemic on Tuesday as the department deals with its second major spike in illnesses in the last six months.

On Tuesday evening, department officials reported 6,688 active cases of the virus spread out over 138 separate VA facilities across the country.

That case count is an increase of nearly 90 percent in the last 30 days and a rise of more than 127 percent since the start of September. Two weeks ago, the department had fewer than 4,800 active cases.

Fourteen department medical centers have more than 100 active cases among their patient population, led by VA hospitals in Minneapolis (191), Milwaukee (179) and Iowa (158).

Veterans Affairs officials have repeatedly dismissed concerns over the rising active case counts, saying that hospitalization rates provide better insight into department response to the ongoing pandemic.

As of Tuesday, the department reported at least 606 inpatients dealing with complications related to the virus. That’s up 78 percent since the start of October.

In total, nearly 78,000 patients connected to VA facilities have contracted the virus since the start of March. The recent spike in cases mirrors nationwide increases in infections. More than 9.2 million Americans have tested positive for the virus in the last eight months, with numerous stats reporting record levels of cases in recent weeks.

At least 230,000 have died from complications related to the illness. VA officials have reported 4,078 deaths among patients (up more than 1,000 in the last 60 days) and 63 additional deaths among VA employees.

More than 5 percent of VA patients who test positive for the virus have eventually died from complications related to the virus. That figure 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.

Veterans Affairs officials in recent weeks have begun reopening department facilities to visitors and non-emergency patients despite the active count increases. This week, VA announced it was opening five department telehealth sites at WalMart stores in Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin in an effort to return to pre-pandemic levels of service.

Use of telehealth services have skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic, according to department officials.

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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