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Veterans Affairs department reports first coronavirus death

The Department of Veterans Affairs has confirmed its first coronavirus-related death and reported an increase in the number of confirmed or presumed positive cases from 16 to 30.

The patient died two days ago at a facility in Portland, Oregon, according to a VA spokesperson.

“A Veteran patient in their 70s died March 14 at VA Portland Health Care System due to complications from Coronavirus (COVID-19). This case was previously reported as a presumptive positive in an earlier case count,” Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Christina Mandreucci told CNN.

Older veterans are among the most vulnerable to infection and the VA has taken some steps to protect that demographic of patients. On March 10, more than 134 nursing homes operated by the VA adopted a “no visitors” policy in an effort to lower the risk of exposure to the coronavirus among older veterans.

Earlier this month, the VA confirmed the first case in its system. That veteran is currently being treated for coronavirus at a VA facility in Palo Alto, California.

Since then, the number of confirmed or presumed positive cases has increased to 30 nationwide.

As of Friday, the VA said it has administered 140 total tests, up from 70 just two days prior, but that number is likely to increase significantly.

The VA has 3,000 test kits available,1,000 of which were provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and will be used first. An additional 2,000 VA-developed tests will only be used if necessary, Mandreucci told CNN.

CNN reported earlier Monday that White House officials are likely to ask Congress this week for another round of funding to combat the coronavirus, according to two White House officials.

This time the money would be for the Pentagon, Department of Homeland Security and Department of Veterans Affairs, as the administration ramps up resources across the government in preparation for a potentially larger outbreak. Administration officials have discussed relying on the VA to supplement the broader health care system by taking civilians in the event the coronavirus crisis worsens.

That would require triggering a specific directive, a step that has been taken during previous crises. In 2016, the department authorized VA grief counselors and emergency responders to provide assistance to victims following the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida.

President Donald Trump’s former VA Secretary, David Shulkin, previously told CNN that were he still running the VA, he would have already issued the directive in response to the coronavirus. “I believe the necessary authorities are already in place. I do believe that one should coordinate all their decisions with both Congress and the executive branch,” he said.

As of now, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has not taken that step, but the option remains on the table amid warnings that the outbreak is expected to spread. The VA has deployed some resources to help other federal agencies conduct screening of repatriated Americans.

One VA official working at a facility outside Washington, DC, told CNN last week that they believe VA resources would only be offered to the civilian population in a worst case scenario and that they were not aware of any discussions at the local level about that happening.

Some VA medical facilities are uniquely equipped to treat patients with respiratory symptoms that have been associated with coronavirus, offering so-called negative pressure isolation rooms that contain air flow to help prevent cross-contamination.

The VA has 1,000 of those rooms throughout its system, according to Shulkin, more than any other health care system in the country. But they’re only effective if properly staffed, he said.

This story has been updated with additional reporting and background information.

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