Lawmakers discuss COVID-19 impact on veterans

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Committee Co-chair Rep. Walker Thomas, R-Hopkinsville, asking about the number of residents of Kentucky’s four veterans homes since COVID-19 forced the facilities to stop accepting new patients.

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ) – There have been no reported cases of coronavirus among the residents of Kentucky’s four veterans homes, according to testimony given to a state legislative panel Wednesday.

“Since the declaration of the emergency in March, we have had seven staff test positive, two of which, after immediate retesting were found to be negative,” Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Keith Jackson said while testifying before the Interim Joint Committee on Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection. “Out of those employees, five have returned to work, one remains in quarantine until medically cleared and one staff member resigned prior to returning to work.”

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Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, asked about the turn-around time for a test result. Mark Bowman, another department member who testified, said it now takes 24 hours to 48 hours to receive a result. He said early in the pandemic it was taking up to 10 days.

Jackson attributed the department’s success of curtailing the spread of COVID-19 in the veterans homes to continuous testing of all staff and residents in addition to other aggressive measures.

“One of the unfortunate by-products of our strenuous screening and protective measures has been a restriction on visitation,” Jackson said. “However, each facility has found creative ways to help families keep in touch with their loved ones.”

Those include using iPads, phones and plexiglass visitation stations.

The department is expanding telemedicine with Veterans Affairs medical centers in Lexington, Louisville and Marion, Ill., to decrease the chances residents might be exposed to COVID-19 during doctor visits. The homes have also stopped accepting new residents. Jackson said that had regrettably caused a 7 percent drop in the residential population across the system.

That prompted committee Co-chair Rep. Walker Thomas, R-Hopkinsville, to ask the occupancy of each veterans home. Bowman responded:

  • Eastern Kentucky Veterans Center in Hazard had 98 of 120 beds filled;
  • Central Kentucky Veterans Center in Radcliff had 64 of 120 beds filled;
  • Western Kentucky Veterans Center in Hanson has 80 of 156 beds filled;
  • and Thomas-Hood Veterans Center in Wilmore had 145 of 285 beds filled.

The department hopes to resume admissions in late August or early September, but Jackson added that would depend on local infection rates.

Jackson said that personal protective equipment remains difficult and expensive to secure for his department, but the veterans homes have sufficient supplies. The department has applied for a more than $1 million federal grant to build four warehouses for future emergency preparedness storage.

The department also received $3 million in April from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Jackson characterized the federal tax dollars as “instrumental” in supporting Kentucky’s four veterans homes.

Jackson said his department began offering free day care for children of the nursing home staff during the disruption of in-person schooling and closure of child care facilities. He added that has helped the department to retain staff, something that has been a challenge in recent years. Department officials have said staffing shortages have contributed to the low occupancy rates at some of the homes.

At least two pieces of legislation have been passed in recent years to address the staffing issues. Bowman said one measure passed this past session, known as Senate Bill 149, will ease staff shortages by allowing the department to hire nurse aides on personal service contracts.