Before holiday parties start, Veterans Affairs officials are urging all veterans to stop by their nearest medical center for an early present: a COVID-19 booster shot.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough partnered with Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra for a press event Monday highlighting the need for updated vaccine shots against the still-present threat of coronavirus. The pair toured operations at the Washington D.C. VA Medical Center and spoke to staffers administering the vaccines to patients.,

“This is so important as we head into the holidays,” McDonough told reporters. “So many of our veterans have had to isolate for the last couple of years, leading to missing their families.

“Now our veterans, having access to the updated bivalent boosters and flu vaccine, can be reunited with their families at this critically important time of year.”

The effort is part of the White House’s six-week push to get millions of Americans vaccinated ahead of another expected surge in COVID-19 cases. More than 98 million cases of COVID-19 infection have been recorded in America since the start of the pandemic in spring 2020, and at least 1,075,000 have died from complications related to the virus.

Among veterans in the VA health care system, more than 805,000 have contracted the virus and more than 23,400 have died. Those numbers do not include every veteran in America, because not every veteran relies on VA as their primary medical care provider.

Active cases of coronavirus across the VA medical system have spiked in recent weeks, rising about 60% in the last month.

McDonough said he has not yet seen a significant increase in the number of VA staff unable to work because of coronavirus infections, but officials are closely monitoring for signs of trouble.

Department health officials have said they expect a spike in cases over the winter months (similar to what public health officials have seen over the last two years) and are prepared to handle the wave of incoming cases.

But McDonough and Becerra said Monday that veterans can stave off some of the most serious complications of the virus by getting updated booster shots.

“We’re trying to guarantee you life,” Becerra said. “We’re trying to make sure folks won’t be hospitalized. We’re trying to get you past the serious infections.

“We’ve all seen that whether you’re boosted or vaccinated, you can still be infected. The question is whether you can survive that.”

The Department of Health and Human Services has more than 70,000 locations nationwide for Americans to receive free COVID-19 booster shots. A full list is available through their vaccine web site.

Veterans can also contact any VA medical center to learn about vaccine availability and distribution policies. The department has administered more than 4.7 million vaccines since late 2020

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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