COVID cases in the Veterans Affairs health system have nearly doubled in the past month, prompting the department's top doctor to urge veterans to get the most recent coronavirus booster shot.
The surge follows increases in infections nationwide. In the past two weeks alone, cases have grown by 56% and hospitalizations have jumped by one-quarter to an average 38,331 each day. Deaths also are on the rise: What had been an average of 300 a day for several months is up to 486 per day, according to data compiled by The New York Times.
Since Nov. 1, 267 veteran patients in the VA health system are known to have died from the illness.
The rise in illnesses and deaths have prompted VA officials to encourage patients to get the latest version of the COVID-19 booster vaccine. The shot addresses both the original vaccine strain and the BA.5 omicron variant.
Under Secretary for Health Shereef Elnahal said Tuesday that fewer than 40% of VA patients have received the shot, known as a bivalent vaccine.
"We are really trying to increase uptake of the bivalent vaccine, in particular among elderly veterans," Elnahal said during a media roundtable. "We are working to educate and reach out and coordinate with veterans across the country on that."
Elnahal did not say what percentage of staff members have received the updated booster shot. A Veterans Health Administration spokeswoman said 90% of its employees have provided proof of vaccination, while 9% requested exemptions.
While no VHA employees have been terminated as a result of their refusal to receive the shot, 78 have been disciplined and 11 were removed from their jobs for failing to follow safety protocols.
All VHA employees are required to have received the original COVID-19 vaccine, but it has been VA policy not to question requests for religious exemptions or medical exceptions. However, employees working in areas that could pose a risk to veteran patients -- nursing homes, intensive care units, spinal cord injury centers and cancer units -- were required to submit waivers.
COVID-19 hot spots in the country include New England, the South and California, according to VA data.
The VA announced its first COVID-19 case on March 4, 2020, in California, and its first death of a VA patient 12 days later in Oregon. Since then, it has recorded 811,869 cases and 23,576 deaths.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime