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Veterans homes adapt as pandemic takes toll

By BELINDA ROBINSON in New York | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2021-08-03 09:13

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a disproportionate fatality rate in some veterans homes compared with other nursing homes, leading the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to move to ensure more lives aren't lost to the Delta variant of the coronavirus.

The VA runs more than 100 nursing homes, or community living centers (CLC) in every state. A CLC is solely funded and managed by the VA. They cater to 33,000 American veterans, who mostly served during World War II.

But with more than 30,000 beds and about 133 homes, it is the state veterans home program that is the largest provider of long-term care to veterans, the VA said.

Most of those homes are owned and by individual states. Approximately 20 to 23 percent of them are overseen by outside management companies. They are privately run and are for-profit ventures.

The state-run veterans homes receive funding from the VA and are inspected annually to make sure they continue to meet VA standards.

In Texas, all nine state veterans homes are overseen by outside management companies. Those homes had more than double the death rate among COVID-19-infected residents from the pandemic's start until June 2021 compared with other nursing homes in the state, according to a months-long investigation by the Texas Tribune and the Houston Chronicle published last month.

Nearly 570 veterans home residents tested positive for the coronavirus in Texas, and 134 died.

One day after the newspapers published the story, Land Commissioner George P. Bush, the son of Jeb and Columba Bush, announced that he would end the relationship with the two for-profit operators of the homes. He asked staff to carry out a nationwide search for replacements.

As of Sunday, the VA reported 276,674 cumulative virus cases, including veterans and employees, and 12,761 COVID-19 deaths.

The official COVID-19 death toll in all US nursing homes exceeds 133,000, accounting for more than 1 in 5 of the nation's pandemic deaths.

The VA reported nearly 3,900 infections among veterans and staff on July 26, up from about 1,500 in mid-June, a USA Today review found. Hospitalizations in the week before the report rose to 345, up from 225 at the end of May.

The pandemic didn't just affect residents. Since the beginning of the outbreak in March 2020, 146 VA healthcare workers have died. In recent weeks, four unvaccinated VA employees died from COVID-19. At least three died from the Delta variant.

On July 26, the VA said it would require 115,000 of its front-line healthcare workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus in the next two months. It is the first federal agency with such a mandate. At least 69 percent "have completed vaccination in VHA (Veterans Health Administration)", the department said.

With the Delta variant surging in many states, a VA spokesman told China Daily that the agency has maintained "strict safety protocols'' to protect veterans at CLC facilities.

"Our veterans were the first to be offered the vaccines. Our employees were also among the first to be offered vaccines,'' he said.

"They do daily temperature checks and testing, so we have a lot of safeguards in place. One of the things that helped us mitigate COVID-19 is that our nursing homes are located right within our medical centers, so if somebody gets really sick, they can get care and be isolated so that helps."

The VA said that it had learned several lessons during the initial wave of the pandemic, including "how to efficiently and accurately disseminate quickly evolving communication and guidance to CLCs nationwide. And "also (paying) attention and vigilance to infection prevention is key".

In March, the VA announced that it will give grants of $1 billion to state-run veterans homes. At least $150 million of it will be from the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act and is for mitigating the risk of COVID-19.

When the virus became rampant in US states in March 2020, it took a toll at state-run veterans homes.

David Liesse's father, Jerome, a 95-year-old World War II veteran died in November 2020 after being diagnosed with COVID-19 at the LaSalle Veterans' Home, in LaSalle, Illinois, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. He and 24 others who lost loved ones are suing the facility.

"I put my faith in them, I put my father's life in their hands and, pre-COVID, I had no problem," Liesse said. "But after COVID, it's just like, nobody knew what to do."

In New Jersey, at least 101 residents died of COVID-related illnesses at the Menlo Park Veterans Memorial Home. Around 81 residents of the state-run New Jersey Veterans' Memorial Home and a nurse's aide died from virus complications in September 2020.

In Alabama, 46 people died at the Bill Nichols State Veterans Home, and 96 had tested positive for the virus in May 2020.

In Missouri, COVID-19 killed 162 residents living in Missouri's state-run nursing homes for veterans in 2020.

In Massachusetts, the Holyoke Soldiers' Home was linked to more deaths — at least 76 — than any other facility in the state as of October 2020. Criminal charges were filed against two staff members.

At its upcoming Aug 13 annual gala, the Bilingual Veterans Outreach Centers of Massachusetts will honor those who died at the Holyoke facility.

"There is no higher calling for us than to celebrate their lives and to extend our love and support to their family members," Executive Director Gumersindo Gomez told masslive.com. "We are planning a very significant event."

Heng Weili in New York contributed to this story.

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