Veterans Affairs officials partnered with the surgeon general Thursday to urge health staff to keep up their push to get patients vaccinated against COVID-19, amid rising cases of the virus and lagging participation among veterans.

In a call with medical directors and providers across the country Thursday, Vice Adm. (Dr.) Vivek Murthy, who oversees the U.S. Public Health Service, said the country is in “such a better place” with the virus than in recent years. But he also cautioned that coronavirus remains a threat, and said health care officials need to reinforce that message to the public.

“There are millions who are eligible for the [newest] vaccine and who have not yet received it,” he said. “And I’m particularly concerned about the elderly and those who are at higher risk because of other medical conditions.

“When we look at the people who are dying from COVID-19, they predominantly tend to be those who are older. … So this makes it all the more important for our elderly patients that we reach out to ensure they get the updated vaccine.”

Despite dramatic drops in COVID-19 cases across America in the past year, Murthy said officials are still seeing about 400 deaths a day from complications related to the virus.

Active COVID-19 cases within the VA health care system have increased significantly in recent weeks. As of Wednesday night, there were nearly 12,000 cases spread across 135 VA medical centers.

That’s up more than 30% in the past two weeks and 70% above levels in mid-November.

“We’re also starting to see hospitalizations creep up across the country,” VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal told staff on Thursday’s call.

“COVID is still with us.”

Earlier in the week, Elnahal said that less than 40% of elderly veterans in the VA health care system have gotten the bivalent COVID-19 vaccines in recent months — “a number we think is still too low.”

The White House has spent recent weeks encouraging all Americans to get the updated vaccine, to include partnering with state health officials and groups like Major League Baseball to spread word about how to make an appointment for the vaccines.

But veterans are seen as a particularly vulnerable population, both due to their age — more than half of all veterans in America today served before 2001 — and the potential for other health complications that could make them more susceptible to health complications.

Almost 3% of all confirmed COVID-19 cases within the VA health care system — about 23,500 individuals — have resulted in a patient’s death. Nationwide, the rate is about 1%.

Earlier on Thursday, the White House announced plans to make more coronavirus test kits available free to Americans and expand resources for individuals to make appointments for the new vaccines.

“We are seeing the shift from a virus that dominated our lives to a virus that we can manage,” Murthy said. “And that’s what we need to continue doing going forward.”

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 its 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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