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Nurse: Deaths at veterans’ home underreported

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

As one of the state’s worst COVID-19 nursing home hot spots in recent weeks, the New Mexico State Veterans Home in Truth or Consequences is facing allegations that its administration has underreported the number of residents who have died from the virus.

The death count is actually more than double the number that has been publicly disclosed in daily COVID-19 updates from state officials, Diana Lyn Gennaro, a nurse who works in administration at the veterans home, said in an email to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last week.

A copy of the email she said she sent to the governor was obtained by the Journal.

“I have had to keep my composure and toe the line for the administration (at the nursing home). Our facility is under reporting our COVID deaths,” Gennaro wrote.

“I have never seen so much gross negligence in my life!”

“Please hold someone accountable for this,” she wrote to Lujan Grisham on Friday. “You said that losing one veteran would be too much. We’ve had 21 deaths due to COVID. What are you going to do now?”

Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki told the Journal on Wednesday that he couldn’t say whether the email actually reached the governor without knowing what address it was sent to.

But he responded, “The governor is deeply, deeply distressed by the spread of the virus inside the veterans facility in TorC, and more so by any report of improper or insufficient treatment or adherence to health safeguards that may have contributed to the needless illness and loss of life at this or any other long-term care facility in the state.”

“The virus in recent weeks has been spreading like wildfire in our state, and the risks – and therefore the need for enhanced vigilance in communities and at facilities like this one – have never been higher.”

He referred a reporter to the Department of Health for more explanation of “the actions the state has taken and will take.”

“But suffice to say: The state will get to the bottom of this.”

Juliet Sullivan, director of the veterans home, referred Journal questions about the death count to DOH spokesman Matt Bieber.

Bieber told the Journal in an email there is “a lag between the moment someone dies and the moment that death is reported as a COVID-related death.”

“This process may take seven to 10 days,” Bieber said, adding that a doctor must first complete a death certificate, which then goes to the Office of the Medical Investigator and then to the DOH.

Asked whether that meant the state’s overall reported COVID-19 death count could be more than a week old, Bieber wrote in an email, “The lag time is often much shorter, and same-day reporting does occur – but understanding the steps involved in the process is valuable.”

He said the DOH takes the “allegation of undercounting very seriously.”

Since Oct. 4, more than 102 residents and 74 staff at the veterans home have tested positive for COVID, state officials told the Journal last Thursday. Some 14 residents with the virus were moved out of the facility to a COVID ward of a Las Cruces assisted living home.

Last Thursday, the state’s public count of deaths at the home since the outbreak Oct. 8 was reported as nine – a dozen fewer than Gennaro claimed in her letter.

By Wednesday, the state had reported an additional seven COVID deaths of residents at the home.

Nursing home residents and workers account for more than one-third of the nation’s 300,000 or so confirmed deaths from COVID-19, the Associated Press reported this week.

The outbreak in recent weeks at the state’s only nursing home for veterans spurred the state Department of Health’s Division of Healthcare Improvement to send an inspector last week to the facility and to hire a company to perform an evaluation of the infection control measures taken there. A temporary administrator from the Department of Health has also been assigned to assist with the response.

The outcome of those evaluations, and what was discovered, have not been made public.

State online records show the veterans facility, which has a past history of deficiencies in infection control prior to the pandemic, had been surveyed regularly at least monthly and sometimes every three weeks by the state beginning March 12 of this year. No deficiencies were cited.

The most recent survey posted online was dated August 5, showing “offsite surveillance” with “video verification.” No deficiencies were found then.

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