Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
After months of escaping the scourge of the novel coronavirus, New Mexico’s only nursing home for military veterans has been so hard hit by COVID-19 that more than 170 residents and staff have tested positive and nine residents have died in the past two months.
The deaths of three residents from the New Mexico State Veterans Home in Truth or Consequences were reported on a single day this week – on Wednesday.
New Mexico health officials are attempting to contain the virus and have relocated some residents, but the crisis is not likely over.
“When there is an outbreak at a facility it is incredibly challenging to contain it, particularly because it can pass through asymptomatic staff. Tragically, we expect cases at the Veterans Home will continue to rise,” said Katrina Holtrum-Lopez, Cabinet secretary of the state Aging & Long-Term Services Department, in a statement Thursday.
Since Oct. 8, 102 residents have tested positive, along with about one-third of the home’s staff – 72 employees. Nine residents have died over the past two months, said Breanna Anderson, spokeswoman for department.
Some 14 residents who tested positive were being transferred this week to a COVID-only wing of the Haciendas at Grace Village in Las Cruces, she said.
State Department of Health officials say about 104 military veterans or their spouses are living at the home, which employs about 214 staff members.
After the pandemic struck last spring, the state-operated home, unlike many other New Mexico congregate care facilities, had not reported a single COVID-19 case.
Now the home is a “hot spot.”
“Our Veterans Home … is experiencing one of the worst outbreaks we’ve seen,” Holtrum-Lopez stated. “These men and women risked their lives for us and we are imploring the public to wear a mask and socially distance so this does not continue to happen to another facility.”
The state has assigned a temporary administrator to the home to assist with response, which also included hiring an infection control company to advise on containment and disinfection measures, said Marisa Maez of the state Department of Health.
Additional commercial cleaning crews have been dispatched.
An inspector with the state’s Division on Health Improvement also was apprised of the situation and has been on site since Monday, Maez added.
“We are also taking steps to administer antiviral therapeutics to residents in the facility,” Maez told the Journal. She said the two drugs are Remdesivir and the monoclonal antibody drug Bamlanivimab. Both have shown promise at reducing virus symptoms and preventing hospitalizations of at-risk individuals.
Staff also is being screened before work shifts, and residents are being monitored for symptoms multiple times a day, Maez added.
“We know through the state supports, aggressive infection control and testing that we are putting up a good fight. But nursing homes and assisted living facilities are not sterile environments,” Anderson said in an email.
State Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, told the Journal that the veterans home “is a victim of circumstances.” She said she understands the increase in cases is a result of a lack of rapid testing and rapid test results in Sierra County.
“That’s what’s happening in the state veterans home. They did not have rapid testing and rapid response. This is when the outbreak occurred. They didn’t know who to isolate.”
Dow said the home now has the ability to test on-site “and get a result back in hours, but that is something the director has been asking for for a while.”
Residents with the virus have been housed in one wing of the building, Dow said, but “what that did was forced those who did not test positive to double up or triple up in the other rooms. Problem is, you didn’t really know if they were positive or not for 14 days. By the time they got results it was, ‘Oh, guess what, your roommate tested positive.'”
Frances Luna, owner/publisher of the Sierra County Sentinel, said that before the major outbreak several veterans home employees telephoned the newspaper concerned that some residents who tested positive were not being quarantined.
“DOH was not answering their calls or complaints as employees,” Luna said Thursday.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham had closed the nearby Elephant Butte Lake State Park to the public over Memorial Day weekend in part to protect residents at the veterans home from the virus.
“One case means the likelihood that it spreads and I lose a veteran, you lose a veteran … too high,” she said back then.
At the time, COVID-19 had been detected in 31 senior care homes in New Mexico.
Veterans home director Juliet Sullivan declined to comment this week when contacted by the Journal, referring a reporter to state health officials.
But in May she told the Journal she was intent on adhering to strict standards, such as having staff change into sterile scrubs before their shifts, to try to protect the vulnerable community of veterans.
Dow said the last time she spoke with Sullivan, “She was absolutely heartbroken.”
Back in the spring, state health officials mounted an aggressive push for testing, mitigation and prevention at senior homes statewide, and members of the New Mexico National Guard were called up to help disinfect nursing homes with industrial grade products.
The governor also instituted restrictions on visitors to the state’s 71 nursing homes and 268 assisted living facilities. The state eased those restrictions in August to provide COVID-safe visitation options in counties with lower COVID-19 test positivity rates and in facilities that hadn’t experienced a new positive case or outbreak.