Active cases of COVID-19 continue to rise among Department of Veterans Affairs patients, topping more than 10,000 for the first time since the pandemic began.
As of Monday, 10,368 patients in the VA health system had tested positive or were being treated for the coronavirus, including 9,268 veterans, 878 employees, 48 veteran employees and 174 others, according to data released by the VA.
The increase in cases reflects "what is going on in the country and the local communities," VA spokeswoman Christina Noel said.
To date, the VA has recorded 89,186 cases of COVID-19 in its system, including 4,339 deaths. Sixty-six staff members have died.
Noel said that, despite the increase in cases, the hospitalization rate for VA patients is declining, from a high of 38% in March to a low of 13% this month.
The VA's infection rate among employees, Noel added, is less than 1% -- "much lower than other health care systems," she said.
"VA employees have provided life-saving COVID-19 care to nearly 50,000 patients and tested more than 630,000 patients and employees for the virus," Noel said.
VA hospitals currently seeing a surge in cases include Milwaukee and Minneapolis, each with more than 300 active cases. Iowa City, Iowa; Columbia, Missouri; Aurora, Colorado; and Cleveland, Ohio, all have more than 200 cases each.
Noel said VA medical centers have adequate supplies of personal protective equipment to meet current demand.
VA facilities continue to encourage patients to receive care through telehealth and are screening those who go to a VA medical center for an appointment. Many hospitals and clinics bar visitors other than caregivers needed to assist a patient during an appointment.
In places especially hard hit, such as Colorado, visits are allowed to dying patients only if the patient has tested negative for the coronavirus.
"VA has put in place rigorous safety measures at all of its facilities, including employee and Veteran COVID-19 screening, physical distancing and appropriate personal protective equipment such as face coverings," Noel said. "Additionally, VA will continue to maximize the personalized virtual care options of telehealth, phone consults and wellness checks, as these services have been a valuable link to veterans during this challenging time."
More than 11 million Americans have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began, and 246,526 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Across the VA, medical facilities are preparing to distribute a vaccine to their most vulnerable patients once the Food and Drug Administration issues an emergency-use authorization for one.
According to sources within the VA, veterans in its nursing homes and those age 85 and over in non-VA nursing facilities will have priority, followed by veterans in other residential settings; vets over the age of 75; those receiving hemodialysis or chemotherapy; homeless veterans; and finally, those age 65 and over, especially those with conditions such as hypertension, obesity or COPD -- all of which raise risk for developing a severe case of the illness.
Two vaccine candidates -- one developed by Pfizer and the other by Moderna -- have demonstrated effectiveness of more than 90% in clinical trials, the companies announced this month.
The Louis Stokes VA Medical Center in Cleveland participated in the Pfizer Phase 2 and Phase 3 trials for its vaccine candidate; another VA medical center recruited veterans for Moderna's candidate. VA officials have not said where that activity is taking place.