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Veteran living at South Florida VA nursing home dies from the coronavirus

State of Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs (State of Florida/WikiCommons)
April 07, 2020

A military veteran who fell ill from the coronavirus in mid-March at a Florida VA nursing home in Pembroke Pines has died, state officials confirmed Saturday.

The Florida Department of Veterans Affairs, which operates the Alexander Nininger State Veterans Nursing Home, issued a statement expressing its condolences.

“It is with deep sadness we announce the passing of one of our hospitalized veterans due to COVID-19,” the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, said Florida Veteran Affairs Executive Director Danny Burgess. “Our heartfelt condolences go to the family and friends of the resident, and to our healthcare staff who shared in his life’s memories during his stay at the home. They will remain in our hearts and prayers.”

The deceased veteran, who was not identified, was one of two men living at the nursing home for veterans in Pembroke Pines who were hospitalized last month after they tested presumptive positive for the coronavirus, according to the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs. They were transferred to a local hospital.

The two residents at the Alexander Nininger State Veterans Nursing Home were tested after they showed signs of a low-grade fever, according to officials. They have been the only veterans at the state’s seven veteran nursing home and domiciliary facilities who have contracted the disease since the coronavirus outbreak in Florida last month.

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With more coronavirus test results rolling in, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among veterans at the Miami VA hospital has more than doubled to 36 as of Saturday, according to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs records. One of those veterans, a man in his 90s, died last week, according to the Miami VA officials.

About half of those patients are being treated at the downtown Miami VA hospital and the other half are quarantined at home, records show.

The Miami VA hospital now surpasses the Orlando VA facility, with 34 positive COVID-19 patients, for the most coronavirus infections in Florida.

Statewide, 104 veterans have tested positive for the viral disease at federal VA hospitals as of Saturday, up more than 30 percent this past week.

That figure, however, represents less than 1 percent of the total confirmed COVID-19 cases statewide, according to Florida Department of Health records. As of Saturday, there have been 11,500-plus positive test results and nearly 200 deaths in Florida due to the highly contagious respiratory disease..

The 372-bed Miami VA hospital, which serves 58,000 veterans in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties, has also had four staff members test positive for the viral infection, according to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Mary Kay Rutan in Florida. But, citing privacy concerns, she declined to break down which types of staff — doctors, nurses or other healthcare personnel — have been infected with the virus.

Rutan said that “the employees are all in isolation, mitigating further risk of transmission to other patients and staff.”

Rutan issued a statement asserting that the veterans’ healthcare system has been preparing for the coronavirus outbreak since late January and has geared up to meet the escalating threat on all fronts, from medical supplies to testing to screenings.

“The VA has robust procurement and inventory processes in place to ensure medical center needs are met,” the statement said.

The Miami VA hospital was among dozens of veterans’ facilities nationwide recently cited by a federal inspector general for failing to maintain adequate equipment and supplies, including critical N95 masks for healthcare workers. The reality is, hospitals in and outside the VA system are reporting shortages of the N95 masks as well as traditional surgical masks.

On Monday, Miami VA officials started requiring employees to use and reuse surgical masks for one week, unless they are treating patients with COVID-19 or their masks become soiled. In those instances, they can ask supervisors for a replacement.

“These masks are expected to be used for a week at a time, longer if possible,” Miami VA Healthcare System Director Kalautie JangDhari told staff in an email Sunday that was updated with the same message Wednesday. “Masks may be removed while eating or drinking, but must be immediately put back on.”

Despite the new policy, Miami VA healthcare workers say surgical masks are not as thick or effective as the N95 masks that were found to be in short supply at the hospital by federal inspectors during a visit last month. The director’s emails did not address that shortage issue, nor did a VA hospital spokesperson respond to a Miami Herald request to comment about it.

One employee, echoing the sentiment of others contacted by the Herald, said the new policy was a “joke” because the surgical masks are intended for a single use and soil quickly, running the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

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© 2020 Miami Herald