Volunteers help to lay holiday wreaths at graves at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Saturday Dec. 15, 2018, during Wreaths Across America Day. Wreaths Across America was started in 1992 at Arlington National Cemetery by Maine businessman Morrill Worcester and has expanded to hundreds of veterans' cemeteries and other locations in all 50 states and beyond. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Brett Sholtis is a health reporter for WITF/Transforming Health. Sholtis is the 2021-2022 Reveal Benjamin von Sternenfels Rosenthal Grantee for Mental Health Investigative Journalism with the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism. His award-winning work on problem areas in mental health policy and policing helped to get a woman moved from a county jail to a psychiatric facility. Sholtis is a University of Pittsburgh graduate and a Pennsylvania Army National Guard Kosovo campaign veteran.
(Harrisburg) — Almost one year ago, Congress passed a law requiring the Department of Veterans Affairs to publish data showing COVID-19 cases and deaths at its nursing homes.
The VA has begun to publish those numbers — providing a stark snapshot of how the virus burned through veterans’ homes across the U.S. during the first 15 months of the coronavirus pandemic. Nationwide, 1,498 residents and 54 staff died, according to a Politico analysis.
In Pennsylvania, from May 25, 2020, through August 29, 2021, more than 500 Veterans Affairs workers at six nursing homes got sick with the coronavirus, records show.
More than 300 elderly veterans in their care also contracted COVID-19 — resulting in over 40 deaths among them..
At the Hollidaysburg Veterans Home in Blair County, 157 workers got COVID-19. They each survived, but the same can’t be said for all of the 61 veterans who got sick. Nineteen died.
At the Gino J. Merli Veterans Center in Scranton, the numbers tell a similar story: 65 staff and 68 residents got sick. Eighteen veterans died.
At four other VA nursing homes across the state, the exact number of residents who died in Pennsylvania is not public: Between one and 10 veterans died at each of those homes, but the VA is withholding the exact numbers for privacy reasons.
Questions remain about when the deaths occurred and what precautions staff may have taken as they fell ill with a virus that would soon spread to residents. Nursing home residents make up a significant number of those who died from the virus. Residents were widely vaccinated once vaccines became available in January 2021. The VA did not respond to requests for comment, and the Pennsylvania Department of Health was not immediately available.