Precious time lost: Wife worries about state’s response to nursing homes

Gene Thornton holds a photo of her and husband Donovan Jagger at the Delaware Veterans Home in Milford on Saturday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

MILFORD — When Gene Thornton left the Delaware Veterans Home in Milford on March 7, little did she know it would be the last time she would get to visit her husband, U.S. Army veteran Donovan F. Jagger, for more than three months.

She is still waiting.

Gov. John Carney declared a State of Emergency in Delaware on March 13 due to COVID-19 and long-term health care facilities that serve the elderly, including skilled nursing facilities such as the Delaware Veterans Home, were forced to close their doors to visitors. The Delaware Veterans Home actually began limiting visitations before the governor’s order went into effect.

It is now June and Ms. Thornton is still anxiously waiting to check on her husband, who suffers from dementia and cannot speak or feed himself — and she can’t help but feel like she has missed valuable time by his side, and that time is running out.

“You know the thing is, my husband is in hospice and that means death is imminent, so every day is precious,” Ms. Thornton said. “Not that I’m the kind of wife that goes in every day. I do see him frequently. He’s pretty much confined to a bed, which is a reclining chair on wheels, and he cannot express himself with words anymore.

“I don’t know if he knows me when I visit or not, but the fact is when I visit, I’m also inspecting him, looking at him and making sure he doesn’t have any cuts or bruises or anything like that. This is why it’s important that loved ones be able to see their people who are in these nursing homes.”

Not only is Ms. Thornton livid about not being able to visit her husband, she insists the state had no plan for staff who walk into the Delaware Veterans Home over the past three months to be regularly tested for COVID-19 and his hospice nurse is also not allowed to visit and check up on his well-being.

“It’s frustrating that we’re doing things that are not getting to the root of the problems,” she said. “Anybody who goes in that building should be tested. The only people going in and out are the staff. Those people could be given the test that will show if they are asymptomatic or not, because those are the people who usually spread the virus.”

Statistics put out by the Delaware Division of Public Health show that around two-thirds of all the COVID-19 related deaths in Delaware have occurred in long-term care facilities.

The DPH said on Friday that 247 of the 388 coronavirus-related deaths in the state have involved nursing home residents, equivalent to about 64 percent. That’s despite the fact just 990 of the 9,773 positive cases, or 10 percent, have involved residents.

Ms. Thornton pointed to the Milford Center, operated by Genesis Healthcare, and the 31 reported deaths related to the coronavirus that have taken place at the facility. She alleged that many of the employees of the Milford Center are now working at the Delaware Veterans Home.

Her frustrations only grew when she said she sent letters to the governor’s office, state senators and the Division of Health and Social Services (DHSS) but never received a response regarding her concerns.

“So far, none of my three emails to that address (for public health COVID inquiries) have been answered other than an automated response that said they were too busy and they would respond later,” said Ms. Thornton. “Last week I spoke with a fellow in the governor’s office and he took a note about that … but I am quite surprised I have still not gotten a reply to my three emails.”

Doug Denison, director of community relations for the Delaware Department of State, which oversees the Delaware Veterans Home, said that the facilities’ strict procedures have proven to be successful.

“No residents of the Vets Home have tested positive for COVID-19, to date,” Mr. Denison said. “We are extremely proud of this fact and we believe that we owe it to the strict procedures we’ve put in place and the diligence and care of the entire staff at the Vets Home, especially considering how things have gone at other long-term care facilities in Delaware.

“Any members of the Vets Home staff who have reason to believe they have been exposed to COVID-19 over the last couple of months have been tested and kept out of the facility until a negative test is provided. We’ve invoked this procedure twice so far.”

In response to Ms. Thornton’s concerns, he said, “The statewide ‘universal testing’ plan for long-term care facility staff announced recently by the governor was launched this week — the Vets Home is covered by this plan and will now test every staff member in accordance with these requirements.”

Tests arrive at facilities

While there have been some delays in getting testing materials to nursing homes, the state sent facilities slightly more than 39,000 kits in a 24-hour span toward the end of last week, DHSS spokeswoman Jill Fredel told the Delaware State News.

“When the state announced universal testing of long-term care facilities two weeks ago, the process was already in place for the use of nasal swabs,” she wrote in an email. “When the majority of facilities expressed the desire to use a cost-free, more simplistic test, the Division of Public Health quickly worked with Curative Inc on behalf of the facilities to initiate a computer software change to meet their needs, and ensured the availability of the test kits for these facilities.

“DPH is appreciative to Curative for stepping up and making the programming change to create a log-in process just for LTC facilities in such a short time frame.”

Ms. Thornton said it is imperative that employees for long-term care facilities get tested for being asymptomatic – on a regular basis.

Mr. Denison said the Vets Home is administering temperature checks and asking screening questions of every staff member at the beginning and end of every shift and have been since early in the crisis. Staff members wear masks in the building and all administrative staff who do not need to be on-site to perform their job duties have been working remotely.

Any resident who exhibits symptoms consistent with COVID-19, such as a fever, is tested immediately and staff have changed the daily routine for residents to facilitate social distancing. For example, residents now take their meals in their residential wings, not in the communal dining room.

Mr. Denison added that the Delaware Veterans Home also engaged with an outside infection control expert to audit its procedures and it was determined that they are doing everything possible to keep COVID-19 out of the facility.

Ms. Thornton said the decision to finally ensure there are now testing requirements at long-term health care facilities has taken far too long. She said the elderly — the most vulnerable population to the coronavirus — should have been made a top priority from the outset of the outbreak.

For the most part, she has been pleased with the care that the veterans home has provided her husband.

“I am proud of the DVH for keeping my husband and the other residents safe, and I am pleased that they are finally beginning to test staff, vendors and official visitors in line with CDC and CMS guidelines,” Ms. Thornton said. “Frankly, it should have been done in lieu of, or ahead of, any drive-through testing for the general public. Statistically speaking, the residents of nursing homes are most likely to die if they get the virus. More than half the deaths in Delaware have been in nursing homes.”

Losing time by the day

Ms. Thornton’s husband of 44 years, Mr. Jagger, now 72 years old, is a 28-year veteran of the U.S. Army. He had a distinguished career in the military and served in Desert Storm. He has lived in the Delaware Veterans Home since November 2015.

Naturally, Ms. Thornton misses the opportunity to be by his side and offer her support.

“I was OK with the lockdown in the beginning, but March to June not seeing my husband who cannot speak for himself or understand spoken language … that is just not fair to him or to me if this continues,” she said. “My husband is on Hospice and I may never see him again alive because the Del Vet’s Home, the secretary of state and the governor did not follow the guidelines laid out for them by the White House Task Force.”

Mr. Denison said he can understand the frustration that Ms. Thornton has had to endure through the pandemic.

He said staff has been creative in providing fun and engaging entertainment and activities for residents and have also “become experts” in setting up Facetime calls, Zoom meeting and Facebook video messaging that has allowed residents to stay in close contact with family and loved ones.

Unfortunately for Ms. Thornton, virtual communication is no help to her when it comes to comforting her husband.

“Regardless, they were not testing March until maybe June 1,” she said, “and for all that time, they were relying on Q&A, and taking a temperature. That is not good enough since an asymptomatic person would not have been prevented from coming in. It is the asymptomatic people who spread the disease, unknowingly. The Delaware State Veterans Home is lucky the virus did not get in.

“It’s frustrating because I watched the briefings on TV, I knew that the governors were being told to ‘protect the most vulnerable communities’ with the testing and contact tracing … and I also know if they had done this, I might have been able to see my husband, and maybe we would not still be losing nursing home residents to COVID-19.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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