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The administrator of the New Mexico State Veterans Home has been placed on administrative leave while the state investigates whether proper procedures were followed before COVID-19 swept through the state-run home and turned deadly over the past two months.
Juliet Sullivan, administrator of the state’s only nursing home for military veterans and their spouses, in Truth or Consequences, was placed on administrative leave Friday as a new leadership team deals with an outbreak of the coronavirus that has taken the lives of at least 21 residents.
As of Monday, about 110 residents and 78 staff members had contracted COVID-19, with 10 active cases reported, state Department of Health spokesman Matt Bieber said.
Acting state DOH Deputy Director Jason Cornwell said Derek Wheeler, the facilities manager at DOH, is serving as interim administrator at the veterans home.
“He has taken over all day-to-day decision-making, responsibility, staffing, everything. It’s his home to run,” Cornwell said.
Sullivan, who was hired about a year ago after working 30 years at another Truth or Consequences nursing home, will be on administrative leave pending the outcome of licensing and employment investigations, Cornwell said. Sullivan couldn’t be reached for comment Monday.
In an interview late last week, Cornwell confirmed that a team from the state DOH Division of Health Improvement surveyed conditions at the veterans home Dec. 7 and identified citations “that would constitute immediate jeopardy – that what you’re doing right now can put people at risk.”
He said that those deficiencies were deemed corrected within a day of the “immediate jeopardy” designation but that more inquiry was needed.
Katrina Hotrum-Lopez, secretary of the state Aging & Long Term Services Department, said potential breaches of infection control prompted the “immediate jeopardy” designation.
A report detailing the specific deficiencies is expected to be made public in January.
“Those infection control practices that could lead to widespread actual harm could be anything from not wearing PPE appropriately … all the way to staff people going into different parts of the facility with COVID, and that’s being against policy or practice,” she said.
One deviation from the required policy was notifying residents and their families by letter that a case of COVID had been diagnosed in the home, officials said.
“The buck stops with the administrator and that leadership, and that’s why they hold a license,” Hotrum-Lopez said.
The state had been monitoring the situation at the home as well as the outcomes, Cornwell said. “Things were worsening,” he said. “We received information about what was going on in the building, and DHI responded as they should.”
“People need to stick to the game plan, because that’s the best possible shot to avoid the outcome,” Cornwell said. “That’s what we are trying to discover, where the game plan went off the rails.”
Cornwell said there is no evidence that anyone at the home, which has about 100 residents, deliberately undercounted its COVID-deaths. Confusion over accurate death counts may have occurred because COVID death reports can take up to seven days or more to be certified and recorded before the Department of Health publicly releases the age range, gender and where the decedent had been living.
Hotrum-Lopez said the state should make that time lag clear when COVID death counts are reported publicly daily by state officials.
“Being transparent to the public is so important for us, and we’re going to do better.”
Cornwell said he didn’t know how long Sullivan would be on administrative leave.
“We’re just doing some fact-finding now,” Cornwell said.
The outbreak, which began in early October, occurred at a time when cases statewide surged, along with deaths.
“It’s terrible to say, but we’re not immune – no facility is immune, no matter who the operator is,” Cornwell said.
Cornwell said he believed state public health officials have COVID under control at the home, after weeks of a “staggering number of cases.”
A new antibody treatment, bamlanivimab, for at-risk patients, is being administered at the home, and other long-term care facilities around New Mexico. Several staff members at the veterans home were vaccinated last week, and vaccinations of residents are scheduled to begin this week, Cornwell said.
The state DOH is trying to ensure “sound infection control practices and (is) putting a leadership team in place to make sure there’s no deviations from the guidance that’s expected of (veterans home) staff there.”
And there are plans to offer additional support for veterans home medical workers and staff, some of whom cared for residents for years before the virus took their lives. “We are working on something to help that community process its grief,” he said.
Hotrum-Lopez said, “I believe, as a community and as a society, that wearing our masks and staying six feet apart and limiting your errands could be saving a life of an elder in a long-term care facility. Those are the people who do not have a voice, and those are the people who are held captive by the actions that we’re doing in the public.”