'We have no idea what is going on there' — Officials call for probe of Penn. vets' home after 26 residents die of COVID-19

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Southeastern Pennsylvania Veterans’ Center

A view of a window of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Veterans Center as members of various fire departments and community members provide an appreciative parade to show support to the staff and veterans. April 14, 2020

State and local officials are calling for an “immediate investigation” into how a Chester County nursing home for veterans has responded to the coronavirus pandemic after nearly 30 people have died there.

State Sen. Katie Muth, a Democrat representing Chester County, and the county’s coroner, Christina Vandepol, issued a statement Tuesday condemning the state-run Southeastern Veterans’ Center (SEVC) and its management.

They were joined by State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who called on the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMVA) and state Department of Health to release more information about the number of coronavirus cases and deaths at SEVC and the five other state-run veterans homes.

“The sheer number of deaths at the Veterans’ Center in such a short period of time warrants an immediate investigation,” Vandepol said. “We have no idea what is going on there or how this outbreak is being handled.”

'Conflicting information'

Since the beginning of April, at least 26 people have died from COVID-19 at the facility, located in East Vincent Township — 13 who tested positive for the virus and 13 listed as “presumed positive,” the coroner said.

Families of residents complain they haven’t been told by staff how extensively the coronavirus has spread through SEVC, with several saying they first learned that residents had died there from an Inquirer report this month, that first revealed at least nine deaths from COVID-19. Since then, the death toll has tripled.

The only source of information on the deaths has been what the facility directly has reported to Vandepol, and an internal DMVA report obtained by The Inquirer.

Vandepol said Tuesday that “conflicting information” was provided to her office about whether all 26 people who died in the facility were tested for COVID-19. The lack of information has led to “discrepancies in reporting both positive cases and death counts.”

Southeastern Pennsylvania Veterans Center

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Veterans Center, April 14, 2020.

'This isn’t just a lack of supplies or staffing shortages'

Muth, in her statement Tuesday, said multiple employees at the facility reached out to her office after the recent Inquirer story about the spike in COVID-related deaths at the facility.

Muth said SEVC staff members have provided her office with disturbing details about the care at the 283-bed facility, including cases of residents with roommates waiting hours for the body of a veteran who died to be removed from the room, improper quarantining of infected residents, and supervisors instructing staff to change or edit medical charts and records.

“Hearing their stories and struggles brought me to tears," Muth said. "This isn’t just a lack of supplies or staffing shortages, this is healthcare providers crying out for help because they feel their patients are at extreme risk because of a failing protocol.”

Rohan Blackwood, the commandant leading the facility, has not responded to requests for comment. Joan Nissley, Department of Military and Veterans Affairs’ communications director, has not responded over the past five days to numerous emails and phone calls.

DePasquale, the state auditor general, said he plans to follow up on a 2016 audit of the six DMVA homes that found problems with admission procedures and how homes handled complaints. He said Tuesday he wants DMVA to create a system for families to register their concerns about the care given to their relatives in the state homes.

“Our veterans and their families deserve to have a full and complete picture of what’s happening inside Pennsylvania’s veterans homes,” DePasquale said.

'It’s inhumane.'

Nadine Bean, the daughter-in-law of a 95-year-old World War II veteran who lives at SEVC, said the residents are like “sitting ducks.”

“They’ve given everything," Bean said of her father-in-law and other veterans, “and to think it’s spreading through there and they are dying alone, that makes me utterly mad. ”It’s inhumane. And they’re withholding information about how dire it is.”

Fran McDermott, whose 91-year-old mother, Josephine McKeon, moved into the nursing home four years ago, said she didn’t know about the extent of the virus’ presence in the facility until her mother called her, telling her two of her roommates were being treated with oxygen.

Previously, McDermott said, the staff was always quick to communicate, but that changed in recent weeks.

“They told me they weren’t allowed to tell me how many cases they had, or even if there were cases on my mother’s floor,” McDermott said. “I asked if they were testing these women, and testing my mother. They said no, and they weren’t allowed to tell me why."

©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer - Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.