Veterans' Home worker tests positive for COVID-19

The Vermont Veterans' Home has been closed to visitors since March 13.

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This story was updated at 9:45 p.m. on April 10.

BENNINGTON — An employee of the Vermont Veterans' Home tested positive for COVID-19 last month, the home acknowledged Friday, the same day that the state employees' union called on it to test all residents and staff for the disease caused by the coronavirus.

A female employee tested positive for COVID-19 on March 15, went into self-quarantine for 14 days and is now back at work, said Vermont Veterans' Home CEO Melissa Jackson.

As of Friday, the Veterans' Home said it had tested 11 of the approximatly 130 residents and 18 of the 200 or so employees for COVID-19, with that one employee testing positive.

The Veterans' Home had notified the Vermont Department of Health, as well as staff members and residents who had close contact with the employee and those residents' family members. None of the people in the facility displayed symptoms of the disease, Jackson said.

The Veterans' Home administrators shared the information for the first time Friday after the Banner called to confirm the positive test, which was revealed by the Vermont State Employees' Association.

Jackson said the notification procedure followed guidelines from the state health department and the Centers for Disease Control, and that publicizing the positive COVID-19 test was at the facility's discretion. She said people who had had contact with the employee were informed.

Earlier Friday, VSEA President Dave Bellini released a letter asking the Veterans' Home to immediately test all its residents and staff for COVID-19. He cited conditions at the home that are similar to the conditions at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, Mass., where at least 28 residents died after testing positive for the coronavirus.

The VSEA said members found the following common conditions at the two veterans' homes: short staffing, poor communication from management, a director of nursing who lacks the support of front-line staff, personal protective equipment that is unavailable for use, as well as front-line staff being chastised by management for wearing PPE.

The VSEA letter also urged the Veterans' Home board of trustees to form a task force — made up of front-line staff, management and board members — that would "lead the facility more effectively" during the coronavirus pandemic.

"It is clear to us that the conditions on the ground at the Vermont Veterans' Home are eerily similar to the tragic conditions in Holyoke," Bellini said in a letter addressed to the chairman of the home's board of trustees, Col. Joseph Krawczyk, a copy of which was supplied to the Banner.

"What happened there could very easily happen here," VSEA Executive Director Steve Howard said in an interview. "Everybody has to be universally tested so we know what we're dealing with."

Vermont state senators Brian Campion and Dick Sears expressed support for the VSEA's recommendation in a letter sent to Gov. Phil Scott's office Friday evening. In the letter, they asked Scott to help ensure that all residents and staff are tested.

"Testing is the only way to ensure those who are infected are isolated and promptly treated," the senators wrote, underscoring that all 28 inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 Thursday at the St. Albans state correctional facility displayed no symptoms prior to being tested.

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The Vermont Veterans' Home employee who tested positive, the senators said, was on duty when she exhibited symptoms, got tested and learned of the result two days later.

"This suggests she was working while contagious," they said.

Krawczyk told the Banner he would like to have all residents and staff tested, "as tests become more available."

On Friday, state officials announced additional measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 in certain types of group living facilities. When a person tests positive at these facilities, everyone in the facility will be tested. This includes nursing homes, corrections facilities, residential homes for those with disabilities, residential treatment centers, assisted living facilities and state psychiatric care facilities.

Campion and Sears told the governor also that they learned from Veterans' Home staff that "some veterans passed away with 'respiratory illness' without having been tested."

Jackson said the information is inaccurate. "Any veteran exhibiting symptoms that could be attributed to COVID-19 were tested either prior to death or at postmortem," she told the Banner. "In all cases the results were negative."

Regarding facility conditions that the VSEA said are similar to Holyoke's, Jackson said the home is continually trying to hire more staff and secure medical supplies, personal protective equipment is readily available through the home's medical supply clerk or staff supervisors, and PPE use follows state and federal guidelines.

Jackson said also that employees have a direct line to her either through email or her cellphone, and that staff members have contacted her even on nights and weekends. Administrators, including the nursing director, she said, have been readily available to assist staff or answer questions.

As of Thursday, 32 residents at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke had died, 28 of whom tested positive for the virus, according to the Associated Press. The home's superintendent has been placed on administrative leave and a new a clinical command structure has been implemented. Medically trained National Guard personnel have been brought in to test all residents and staff for the virus.

The Vermont Veterans' Home instituted a no-visitor policy on March 13, which VSEA Exeuctive Director Howard said came at the urging of unions members in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The Veterans' Home, a state facility, has 200 employees who are VSEA members. They include nurses, caregivers, housekeeping staff and maintenance personnel.

When Veterans' Home board chairman Krawczyk was asked if he was going to reply to the VSEA letter, he said no.

"We don't want anything to distract us from the service we provide," he said, adding that the facility has been following all the state and federal guidelines.

Contact Tiffany Tan at ttan@benningtonbanner.com, @tiffgtan on Twitter or 802-447-7567 ext. 122.


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