A New Hampshire nursing home for war veterans is sending out an "all-hands-on-deck" plea for help amid a ballooning COVID-19 outbreak that has severely depleted its staff and killed nearly two dozen residents in less than a month.
Officials at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton issued the SOS over the weekend, saying it desperately needs licensed nurses, nursing assistants and a host of non-medical workers to help with a staffing crunch left by the virus.
"We need more people to step up and help our veterans get through this," Margaret LaBrecque, commandant of the facility, told ABC affiliate WMUR-TV in Manchester, New Hampshire.
LaBrecque said that as of Saturday, 35 of the facility's 342 staff members have been placed in quarantine after testing positive for the virus. An additional 13 part-time workers have also been sidelined by the contagion, LaBrecque said.
Patients at the facility about 18 miles north of Concord include veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Nursing homes have been especially devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. More than 12,000 facilities nationwide have reported COVID-19 among their residents and staff, which has led to more than 72,000 deaths and more than 354,000 infections, according to the latest data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
Last month, the Illinois Veterans Home at LaSalle reported an outbreak that killed 27 residents and infected 105 others and 95 employees. An outbreak in April at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, Massachusetts, claimed the lives of more than 80 patients and prompted a criminal investigation over alleged mismanagement of the crisis by the facility's administrators. Two leaders at the Soldiers' Home have pleaded not guilty to charges of caretaker neglect and causing or permitting serious bodily injury to an elder or disabled person.
LaBrecque said the New Hampshire Veterans Home had been left fairly unscathed by the first wave of the coronavirus, as restrictions on visitors were implemented and sanitation efforts were increased. But since Nov. 10, 21 patients there have died from the contagion, 13 in just the past week, LaBrecque said. Another 45 patients have tested positive for the virus.
While the source of the outbreak is unclear, LaBrecque said it's likely it was unknowingly brought into the facility by a staff member.
"We started to prepare for this the day the governor shut our doors,” LaBrecque said, referring to restrictions on visitors. “We knew it’s not a matter of if it’s coming in, it was when. Unfortunately, ‘when’ was Nov. 10."
LaBrecque said the home needs eight registered nurses, two licensed practical nurses and 18 licensed nursing assistants to help fill the void. She said the facility also has immediate needs for laundry, maintenance and food service workers, as well as security officers and recreational assistants.
“This is an all-hands-on-deck response," LaBrecque said. "We are shifting resources and making all the necessary changes to achieve our mission, including calling in federal resources to assist, but some positions remain to be filled."
She said staffers and temporary employees brought in have volunteered to work six days a week, and some have been putting in 12-hour shifts a day.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said as soon as he heard of the outbreak, he requested help from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which dispatched an infection control team along with five additional medical personnel to the facility to review best practices and keep the home running.
Sununu praised the job LaBrecque and her staff have done under dire circumstances.
"The commandant and her team are doing a phenomenal job and should be applauded for their incredible efforts during this very challenging time," Sununu said in a statement.
But state Senate Minority Leader Donna Soucy and state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, both Democrats from Manchester, sent a letter to the Republican governor last week expressing concerns over the outbreak at the home and accused Sununu of not doing enough.
In their letter, Soucy and D'Allesandro called on Sununu to quickly implement a strategy to curb the outbreak, address the facility's staffing shortage and boost its supply of personal protective equipment.
"The staff at the New Hampshire Veterans Home are risking their health and safety simply to do their jobs and care for our veterans,” the state senators wrote. "This is unacceptable."