Report: Veterans home failed to protect residents from virus

Associated Press
July 22, 2020 - 9:19 am
Southeastern Veterans Center

DMVA.VA.gov

By MARC LEVY and MICHAEL RUBINKAM Associated Press

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A state-run veterans nursing home in Pennsylvania where 42 residents have died of COVID-19 failed to take steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, state Health Department inspectors concluded.

Health inspectors said in a report that Southeastern Veterans’ Center, a 292-bed facility outside Philadelphia, ignored state and federal guidelines meant to control the virus in nursing homes. The lapses put 128 of the facility's 154 residents in “immediate jeopardy,” according to the Health Department — a legal finding that means Southeastern placed its patients at risk of serious injury or death.

The June 9 inspection found that Southeastern didn’t isolate residents with COVID-19 from residents who had tested negative for the virus; failed to ensure that staff wore protective gear or washed their hands; shuttled nursing staff between COVID-positive units and regular units, and neglected to disinfect equipment.

The facility didn’t have a testing and tracing program, and an infected staffer returned to work two days after testing positive, said the report, which was recently posted online.

“Watching people die was awful. We were told to wrap the residents in a body bag and meet the undertaker at the elevator,” the report quoted a nurse as telling inspectors. “We had problems, we knew some residents had something, but no one would do anything.”

The nurse also told inspectors that “we will be fired for talking to you,” according to the report.

Southeastern eventually turned to hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial drug that President Donald Trump once touted as a COVID-19 preventative, according to state Sen. Katie Muth, a Democrat whose district includes Southeastern. Studies have since found hydroxychloroquine did not help hospitalized patients with COVID-19 and may have done harm.

Christina Diaz, whose 87-year-old father, Paul Ferko, was a resident of Southeastern before he became ill and tested positive for the virus in a hospital, said Tuesday the Health Department inspection validates what she and her sister had heard about conditions inside the home, but could never prove. Ferko died April 28.

Many of the staff at Southeastern seemed overwhelmed, said Diaz, and she and her sister came to suspect that staff members there were not telling them about the seriousness of the outbreak or their inability to contain it.

She believes that far fewer residents would have died had the nursing home had an infection-control contingency plan in place and followed it, she said.

“Whether or not my father would have been one of the few (to die), I feel the number would have been dramatically reduced had there been an adequate plan,” Diaz said.

Southeastern has been particularly hard hit by a pandemic that’s exacted a dreadful toll on Pennsylvania nursing homes. More than two-thirds of the state’s 7,000 COVID-19 deaths have occurred in nursing homes and other facilities that care for older adults.

The state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, which runs Southeastern and five other veterans nursing homes, disputes the inspectors’ findings but has nevertheless submitted a plan of correction “to achieve full compliance with state and federal regulations,” said Joan Nissley, the spokesperson for Military and Veterans Affairs.

The facility's commandant and director of nursing were replaced in late May.

Maj. Gen. Tony Carelli, who leads the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, told state lawmakers earlier that month that federal, state and county inspections at Southeastern had come back clean, and showed the facility had sound protocols in place to respond to the virus.

But Muth, who has asked the state attorney general’s office to investigate what happened there, said Tuesday the facility passed the earlier state Health Department inspection because administrators knew in advance about them, and inspectors never talked to direct-care staff or toured a unit.

Muth questioned whether the Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs was willing to acknowledge the scale of the problem, saying Southeastern staff continues to report to her about infection control failures in the center.

She noted the administration of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf did not publicize the Health Department inspection or issue any sort of sympathetic statement.

“There’s no acknowledgment,” Muth said. “These are veterans in a state-run facility and it’s crickets.”

In other coronavirus-related developments in Pennsylvania on Tuesday:

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MORE THAN 1,000 NEW CASES

More than 1,000 additional coronavirus infections were reported in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, as health officials worked to stifle a recent spike in cases.

The Health Department said the addition of 1,027 positive cases put the state’s running tally at nearly 103,000. Pennsylvania's two biggest cities accounted for about a third of the latest infections, with 139 reported in Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh; and 168 in Philadelphia.

Twenty additional deaths were reported statewide, raising the statewide toll to 7,038.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher than the state’s confirmed case count because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick.

For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple of weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

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Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania. Associated Press reporter Mark Scolforo in Harrisburg contributed to this report.

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