Courtesy CT Veterans Affairs Facebook page

Connecticut’s state and federally run in-patient and congregate living facilities for veterans largely escaped a high number of COVID-19 infections and deaths due to early masking and quarantining requirements along with other measures, according to officials.

As of Friday, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reported 484 cases of COVID-19 among Connecticut veterans with 39 deaths.

The veterans who tested positive did not necessarily seek federal VA or state veterans’ medical services while sick with COVID-19 and the numbers may not include all veterans living in the state who tested positive for COVID-19, officials said.

There were 25 infections and three deaths among the veterans who were living at the state-run Department of Veterans Affairs skilled nursing facility or its congregate housing, both of which are located at the Rocky Hill campus, according to state Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Thomas Saadi.

“To lose those three veterans was a very hard blow,” Saadi said. “Thank goodness we were able to contain it.”

The Rocky Hill campus has 86 veterans in a skilled nursing facility and another 120 living together onsite. The 25 positive tests came from testing 232 individuals living at both facilities more than a dozen times since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Two of the deaths were at the skilled nursing facility while the third was at the residential living center, Saadi said.

“We established isolation or quarantine units in the residential and skilled nursing facility and would cohort them in green, yellow and red zones,” Saadi said. “We would do contact tracing and put asymptomatic people in quarantine.”

The federal VA healthcare system, which includes an in-patient hospital in West Haven, treated 105 veterans for COVID-19, with five patients requiring treatment on a ventilator, 95 discharged or transferred to other facilities and 10 deaths as of Wednesday. About 50 of the federal agency’s 3,500 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began in March.

The bulk of the veterans who tested positive for COVID-19 had come to the West Haven VA hospital for treatment due to symptoms of the disease. Some were sent to the hospital from the federal VA’s urgent and ambulatory care center in Newington, officials said. 

A single possible case of spread in a psychiatric ward near the end of March prompted the entire facility to require masks from that point on, said Alfred Montoya, director of the Connecticut VA Healthcare System.

Due to the timing of the positive test in the psychiatric ward, it was impossible to tell if the patient came in pre-symptomatic or if the patient contracted COVID-19 in the facility, Montoya said.

“Right after that we went to universal masking,” Montoya said. “However you feel about it, masking does reduce the transmission.”

The Community Living Center, which is a skilled-nursing facility with 31 beds, had no patients test positive throughout the pandemic, Montoya said. The floor currently has 17 of the 31 beds filled.

The numbers stand in stark contrast to private skilled nursing facilities throughout the state, many of which were overrun with COVID-19 infections and deaths due to the disease. At varying points during the pandemic, nursing home and assisted living patients accounted for 60 to 70% of the weekly COVID-19 deaths in the state, state Department of Public Health data showed.

The coordination between the state veteran facility run by Saadi and the federal VA West Haven hospital also likely helped keep the infections under control, officials at both agencies said.

Unlike the state-run Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, Mass., which saw at least 76 deaths, leading to the indictment of the director and other staff Friday, Connecticut’s state-run skilled nursing facility for veterans was able to tap into the resources of its federal counterpart which helped with testing and recommendations, officials said.

“Newington and West Haven worked closely with us on testing and shared best practices,” Saadi said. “The federal VA came to our campus and did a walk through. We made sure we reached out to subject-matter experts.”

The key for both the state and federal VA facilities was to maintain “bubbles and barriers.” They isolated patients who came in from the outside, made sure staff was utilizing personal protective equipment properly and fed people on disposable dinnerware without bringing it through several rooms and units.

“Our team worked very hard, particularly on the skilled nursing side,” Saadi said. “Veterans have multiple underlying conditions so it was important to keep them safe.”

The West Haven VA barred entry from multiple locations and immediately gave veterans who used their services, access to virtual medical appointments, Montoya said. The West Haven facility also opened a drive-through testing center and an internal testing process which now can turn around results in a little over an hour, Montoya said.

“Testing was the key in making sure we can get ahead of the pandemic,” he said.

During daily meetings, staff was encouraged to discuss concerns which were acted on, Montoya said. All in-patient rooms were reduced to single occupancy and employees worked together to make sure that they were utilizing PPE properly.

The West Haven VA allowed Dr. David Rosenthal, a primary care physician and the medical director of the homeless veterans primary care program, to help set up a medical setting for homeless individuals recovering from COVID-19 in a school in New Haven.

The makeshift facility utilized equipment and testing from the West Haven VA in a community partnership, Rosenthal said.

Part of the reason the state and federal VAs were prepared was because of the extensive network of VA healthcare providers throughout the country, Rosenthal said.

“From a VA standpoint, we’re federal so we have partners all over the country,” he said. “Seattle, which saw the virus about two weeks before us, was able to give us the blueprint on how to proceed. They told us how it was transmitted to other people and where we need to concentrate our resources.”