Families Describe Conditions at Norman Veterans Center Amid Outbreak

An image of veteran James Mandeville is projected onto the home of his daughter.
An image of veteran James Mandeville is projected onto the home of his daughter, Laurie Mandeville Beaudette, as she looks out a window with her son, Kyle, left, and husband, Mike, in Springfield, Mass., May 12, 2020. Mandeville, a U.S. Navy veteran and resident of the Soldier's Home in Holyoke, Mass., died from the COVID-19 virus at the age of 83. Seeking to capture moments of private mourning at a time of global isolation, the photographer used a projector to cast large images of veterans on to the homes as their loved ones are struggling to honor them during a lockdown that has sidelined many funeral traditions. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Before the pandemic, Glenn "Rusty" Elkins Jr. and his brother used to take their father out every week.

Elkins Jr.'s father, Glenn Elkins, was a resident of the Norman Veterans Center, an 84-year-old Navy and Korean War veteran and a former educator. The brothers would pick up their father from the facility and take him to dinner each Thursday, Elkins Jr. said.

But the outings suddenly halted, forced to a stop by COVID-19. Elkins, like Veterans Center and long-term care facility residents across the state, was separated from his family members by visitation shutdowns and COVID-19 precautions.

Then, Elkins contracted the coronavirus.

"We couldn't get into the facility to see him – they kept us away from him, which was heartbreaking, the fact that we didn't get to see him for seven months before he died," Elkins Jr. said.

Elkins was one of 61 Norman Veterans Center residents diagnosed with COVID-19 since Sept. 17, when the center began to see an outbreak. Elkins was also one of 30 residents who have died at the Norman Veterans Center in relation to the outbreak, which still appears underreported in state numbers.

Though the Veterans Center reported Friday that 30 of its residents have died in relation to COVID-19 – 29 of them in this recent outbreak – the Oklahoma State Department of Health's long-term care facility numbers, also updated Friday, show 16 deaths in the facility.

While the Veterans Center sends out twice-weekly emails updating residents' families on cases and deaths, families of sick residents are unable to see their fathers or grandfathers, and check in themselves to receive updates. Because of COVID precautions, the visitation shutdown continues.

Even methods of communication that families would normally rely on in a situation like this aren't available, as family members said they haven't been able to FaceTime sick residents.

One family member, who wished to remain anonymous because their father lives at the facility, said that after their father contracted COVID-19 and was moved to an isolation ward, he couldn't have his phone, and the family member had to call for regular updates on his condition.

"Part of the frustration that I have is that when I call and ask, they just say, 'Oh, he's doing OK," the family member said. "I don't know what 'OK' means. I don't know if that means that he's not suffering to the extreme with the COVID symptoms. I don't know if he's happy and he's sitting in the hall conversing with some of the other guys. I don't know what that means, and they can't do a FaceTime with him when they're in the COVID unit."

Elkins' family was also unable to FaceTime him while he was in the COVID unit, his family said, even as his illness progressed quickly. He tested positive a few weeks ago and was moved into isolation, but was moved into a unit with other COVID patients when he started showing improvement, his son said. While Elkins seemed to be improving for a time, his health began to go downhill, and he was admitted to Norman Regional.

Elkins Jr., a chaplain at INTEGRIS Baptist Medical Center, was able to have his father transferred to Baptist, where he died Oct. 19 after being intubated. Elkins Jr. said that while his father dealt with diabetes and dementia, he was still lively and active prior to contracting the virus.

"All things were bad timing for my dad," Elkins Jr. said. "Not only would he still be alive today if it weren't for COVID, I think he'd probably have a good five or six more years, even. He might have been 84, but I think he would have lived into his 90s."

Elkins' COVID diagnosis wasn't the first time he'd struggled with his health at the Veterans Center. A few months ago, his son said, the facility stopped giving Elkins his metformin, which managed his diabetes. Elkins Jr. said his father's blood sugar went "through the roof" and he was taken to Norman Regional.

Elkins Jr. said he and his brother were able to meet with facility staff and receive an apology. After that, their father was placed on insulin. Elkins Jr. said beyond the health struggles, his father enjoyed the Veterans Center and was liked by the staff.

But Elkins Jr. and other family members said they believe that while current staff are doing their best for residents, the Veterans Center has a chronic understaffing issue. The issue isn't new. In 2018, The Transcript reported that spouses of Veterans Center residents were concerned with staffing and service cuts, along with outsourcing of care.

"They're way understaffed, and they don't have near enough staff in there. They're doing the best they can, but they're not given the tools to work with, would be my idea," Elkins Jr. said. "They're good folks – they've been really good to us, but you can only do so much with what you have."

While The Transcript's 2018 reporting notes that the facility used to have three on-site doctors, the Veterans Center currently has two doctors who "rotate at the center," Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs spokesperson Shane Faulkner said Friday. Elkins Jr. said that one of the center's former physicians, "a former student of his father's who knew Elkins personally” seemed to be "pushed out as time went on," and couldn't stay at the facility anymore.

"They're critically understaffed...they've always been understaffed, but they're really understaffed now because a lot of people have quit," said a relative of one of the residents who contracted COVID-19. "... In their defense, nobody can get staffing right now in the medical field – everybody is short-staffed."

Faulkner said the Norman Veterans Center also has a medical director and about 375 staffers. While the center usually serves just over 300 residents, numbers have been cut back to about 200 residents during the pandemic.

"Like all health care facilities in Oklahoma, the Norman Veterans Center has vacancies, and faces challenges to recruit and retain health care personnel during the COVID pandemic due to a very competitive marketplace," ODVA Executive Director Joel Kintsel said in a statement addressing facility staffing. "We continue to meet or exceed industry standards for direct care staffing ratios. The nurses, aides, caregivers, operational support staff, and leadership at the Norman Veterans Center that have joined or stayed with us through the pandemic are extraordinary in their compassion and commitment to our veterans' care."

The relative of a resident said that for their father, the center offers a chance to be around other men who share some of his experiences. Prior to COVID-19, the facility also gave residents a chance to be active and watch piano players or singers entertain them. But right now, the relative said, the facility doesn't seem to be providing for its residents.

"I want (my father) to be happy, and I want him to be cared for, and I just don't think they're getting good care right now," the relative said.

Amber Elkins Sarani, Elkins' granddaughter, said she questions, in retrospect, "what would have happened if we had put him in a better facility?" The family placed Elkins at the Veterans Center because of the memory care facility and the affordability for a veterans family, she said.

"I do not think their level of care is adequate – it's not a place that I would put someone else, if I had the choice, or recommend to anyone else," Sarani said.

For now, the Veterans Center's outbreak seems to be continuing. The outbreak has killed two more residents since The Transcript first reported this story last week. The facility has also reported two more positive cases since last Sunday; as of Friday afternoon, 21 residents were positive for COVID-19 at the center, while two more were hospitalized.

In Elkins' case, the outbreak took a beloved father and grandfather, a former science teacher, principal and school superintendent who was dedicated to education and "loved teaching." Elkins was "honest, and funny and lighthearted," Sarani said, a straightforward person who made those around him laugh.

"The pandemic is devastating for everyone involved, obviously, I just want people to take this seriously, follow precautions and not put people's lives in danger, because not only had we not seen my grandfather since March, but we'll never see him again," Sarani said.

This article is written by Emma Keith from The Norman Transcript, Okla. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.

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