Veterans Affairs officials are warning veterans who were exposed to open-air burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan that they could face additional risks from respiratory complications related to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
Last month, VA officials began sending emails to registry participants to warn them of possible vulnerabilities to coronavirus complications, which include severe respiratory deficiencies and failure.
“We do know that veterans who are over the age of 65 or who have underlying health conditions such as asthma, chronic lung problems or other underlying medical issues may be more susceptible and experience more severe symptoms if infected with the coronavirus as is seen in the general population,” the message stated.
Last month, Sens. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., sent a letter to VA leadership asking for more aggressive virus response for veterans with burn pits exposure during recent overseas deployments.
They noted that the 200,000 registered members are likely only a small fraction of the total number of veterans with toxic smoke exposure. Outside groups have estimated the figure at more than 3 million.
"Given the significant number of at-risk veterans, it is critical that the VA prioritizes efforts to ensure that these brave men and women are able to safely receive care during the current public health crisis,” the lawmakers wrote.
As of Wednesday morning, VA officials were tracking 9,823 active cases of coronavirus among veteran patients, employees and outside patients (including military members and civilians in communities where local hospitals have been overwhelmed.)
The number of deaths topped 779. VA is not releasing information on the age of the deceased or whether they had underlying health conditions.
VA’s fatality rate among coronavirus cases is between 8 and 9 percent, well above the national rate of about 5.8 percent for all positive virus reports. In a statement, VA said the mortality data for their patients “cannot be used to compare VA infection or mortality rates with the community because of differences in population risk, test availability, and follow-up.”
As the Defense Department negotiates its way through the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout, military entrance processing stations are working with new guidance when it comes to bringing COVID-19 survivors into the services.
A past COVID-19 diagnosis is a no-go for processing, according to a recently released MEPCOM memo circulating on Twitter.
“During the medical history interview or examination, a history of COVID-19, confirmed by either a laboratory test or a clinician diagnosis, is permanently disqualifying ...” the memo reads.
“During the screening process, a reported history of confirmed COVID-19 will be annotated ‘Considered disqualifying’“
The memo is authentic, Pentagon spokeswoman Jessica Maxwell confirmed. Specifically, it lays out guidelines for MEPS staff to deal with potential, as well as confirmed, coronavirus cases. That starts with screening at all Military Enlistment Personnel, which includes taking a temperature and answering questions about symptoms and potential contact. If health records or test results show you have had the virus and were hospitalized you cannot enlist. Test showing positive or having the virus and did not have to be hospitalized would be handled on a case by case manner.