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Two top officials at Pa. veterans nursing home hit by 37 coronavirus deaths are suspended

The state-run Southeastern Veterans' Center in Chester County, Pa., suffered a devastating outbreak of coronavirus cases in spring 2020 that took dozens of lives. (Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs/TNS)

The head of the Pennsylvania-run Southeastern Veterans’ Center and a senior staffer there were placed on indefinite suspension Tuesday amid an investigation into operations at the nursing home where dozens have died from the coronavirus, according to a state senator and sources at the facility.

Rohan Blackwood, the center’s commandant, and Deborah Mullane, the director of nursing, were asked to turn in their badges and escorted from the Chester County center Tuesday, the sources said.

Blackwood, 47, took over as commandant of the home for veterans and their spouses five years ago after a brief stint as executive director of the Phoebe Wyncote nursing home in Montgomery County. He had previously worked at a troubled nursing home in Lancaster County. His state salary is $119,453. Mullane is paid $122,113 a year.

Blackwood and his senior staff have come under scrutiny in recent weeks after articles in The Philadelphia Inquirer about how the coronavirus tore through the 238-bed home in East Vincent Township. Leaders of the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, which runs the home, have faced questions from state politicians and relatives of residents who died there.

Joan Nissley, a spokesperson for the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, said in an email, “While we do not comment on personnel matters, we can confirm the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs has named an Acting Commandant at our Southeastern Veterans’ Center.”

The Southeastern Veterans’ Center had been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, with at least 37 residents dying from the virus since April 4, according to Chester County Coroner Christina VandePol. Several relatives of residents said they were unaware of how widely the virus had spread — or that anyone had died there — until it was reported in The Inquirer on April 17.

By then, at least 10 residents had died from coronavirus complications.

The state’s five other veterans homes, including one in Philadelphia, appear to have kept the coronavirus out, or prevented it from spreading, according to internal reports and data released by the state.

Recent interviews with 17 current and former employees at the Southeastern Veterans’ Center, as well as with residents’ families and union officials, suggest the facility was not only slow to respond to the pandemic but has been mismanaged by Blackwood, described as having an autocratic style.

Staff members who spoke to The Inquirer described cases of resident neglect, escapes from the dementia unit, and staffing shortages. Some of those same employees sent information to State Sen. Katie Muth, a Democrat whose district includes the facility.

Muth, a vocal critic of the facility’s response to the pandemic, last week urged state officials to remove Blackwood and Mullane.

“It’s their inability to manage a staff to provide a high level of patient care,” Muth said. “They need to replace the management and anybody that doesn’t want to be there to provide care to these veterans. There are some people who have been bullied into enabling their behavior.”

In a hearing this month by the Senate Democratic Policy Committee on the impact of COVID-19 on nursing homes, Andrew Ruscavage, director of the Bureau of Veterans Homes within the DMVA, defended his agency’s response. He said the home had established a plan for handling the virus by March 2, before any residents or staff became infected. But he acknowledged that stockpiles of protective N95 masks were “very limited.”

Maj. Gen. Anthony Carelli, who as adjutant general for Pennsylvania oversees the state’s six veterans homes, told the Senate committee that he was concerned by The Inquirer’s articles about conditions at SEVC and asked the state and county to inspect the facility.

The full report is pending, but Carrelli said he was told inspectors have found no discrepancies.


© 2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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