The coronavirus has now been blamed for more than 15,000 deaths of military veterans since the pandemic was detected in the U.S. almost two years ago, surpassing the grim milestone last month, officials said Monday.
As COVID-19 deaths nationwide surpass 700,000, the Department of Veterans Affairs is contending with its own cases within the VA medical system, the largest integrated health care system for military veterans in the country. The agency has recorded more than 344,000 COVID-19 cases in all 50 states and territories.
Of the 15,000 military veteran deaths, about 5,400 were patients in a VA health care facility at the time. About 9,600 deaths were affiliated with the VA but died at a non-VA hospital or at home. The VA is currently caring for more than 8,100 “active” cases of COVID-19 and has more than 320,000 “convalescent” cases within the system, according to its statistics.
Officials say the death rate for those who contract COVID-19 is nearly four times higher within the VA system — 4.4% — than it is in the active-duty military or the U.S. public at large. Despite the emergence of vaccines, at least 2,200 deaths from the coronavirus have been recorded just since the start of August. September was the single deadliest month since the pandemic began, with more than 1,200 deaths related to COVID-19 or about 40 deaths per day.
More than 200 VA employees also died as a result of COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports more than 43.2 million total cases of the coronavirus nationwide. The highly contagious delta variant is the only one classified as a “variant of concern” in the U.S., officials said.
The VA says more than 4.1 million people — including veterans and employees — have received at least one dose of an approved COVID-19 vaccine, about 58.6% of the veteran population. About 58,000 COVID-19 patients have been admitted to VA facilities.
Veterans are considered more of a risk for coronavirus because of prior medical conditions and age. That was never more apparent than in the case of the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, a veterans center and hospital in Holyoke, Massachusetts — about 100 miles west of Boston.
The hospital is a state-run, accredited residential facility that offers health and hospice care for veterans along with a variety of other services. In April 2020, at least 76 residents died of COVID-19, the deadliest outbreak at a long-term care facility in the U.S. during the pandemic. More than 160 residents and employees at the home tested positive for the virus.
The former superintendent of the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, retired USMC Lt. Col. Bennett Walsh, was criticized in a state-commissioned independent report for mishandling the outbreak. Along with the hospital’s former medical director, Lt. Col. Walsh was later indicted on criminal neglect charges by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office.
“We began this investigation on behalf of the families who lost loved ones under tragic circumstances and to honor these men who bravely served our country,” state Attorney General Maura Healey said after charges were brought in September 2020. “We allege that the actions of these defendants during the COVID-19 outbreak at the facility put veterans at higher risk of infection and death and warrant criminal charges.”
The state attorney general’s office said hospital officials, faced with staffing shortages, decided to consolidate two dementia units although they contained some residents who had COVID-19 and others who weren’t infected. They also are accused of failing to close common areas in the facility, failing to test residents with symptoms, and rotating staff between the different units.
“Several of the residents that (the facility) categorized as ‘asymptomatic’ were, in fact, showing symptoms consistent with COVID-19 at the time of the consolidation or shortly thereafter,” the attorney general’s office said in a statement.
The case against Lt. Col. Walsh is continuing. He also is named in a class-action lawsuit on behalf of employees of the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke.