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Older Veterans Face New Fight As Coronavirus Surges In Region

A Kentucky home displays green lights in memory of those lost to COVID-19.
A Kentucky home displays green lights in memory of those lost to COVID-19.

On Monday, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear delivered his daily briefing on coronavirus, which is surging across the Ohio Valley. Eleven more Kentuckians had died that day. Then the governor provided an update on an especially worrisome outbreak at the Thomson-Hood Veterans Center near Lexington, one of four long-term care facilities dedicated to veterans in the state. Since the virus hit the facility in October, he said, 22 veterans have died there.

Beshear said Thomson-Hood staff managed to keep the virus at bay for almost seven months, but community spread has made it almost impossible to prevent the virus from getting into long-term care facilities. 

“With Veterans Day coming up, and with all the sacrifice they made, with all the sacrifice they made, wearing a mask for them seems like a very small sacrifice,” he said. “You look at our World War II veterans, and we have way too few of them left. Based on age some of them are most at risk to this.”

On Nov. 11, veterans typically line the streets and ride in parades across the U.S. But this year Veterans Day won’t be the same for all of those who’ve served. For veterans who spend their golden years in long-term care centers, they now face a new concern: COVID-19.

Community Spread

Data from the Department of Veterans Affairs shows 218 deaths among COVID-19 patients who have been tested or treated at VA facilities in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. In Kentucky, 53 people treated in VA facilities have died. In Ohio, 21 residents in two veterans homes have died and 130 deaths have been reported in VA facilities. In West Virginia, the VA has reported 35 deaths. 

As community spread becomes more prevalent throughout the region, health officials and care facilities face greater challenges for protecting vulnerable residents, including many older veterans. 

Dr. Michelyn Bhandari, interim chair of the Department of Health Promotion administration at Eastern Kentucky University, has a background in epidemiology. She said finding the origin of someone’s exposure to the virus might not be possible when there’s community spread. 

“So if people are not following recommendations, and ... they've been in close physical contact with someone, or they've been in crowded situations, or enclosed spaces for a duration of time, and they've been in multiple of those, it's kind of hard to know,” Bhandari said.  

Kentucky’s most populous group of veterans, more than 73,000, are between the ages of 60 and 69.

Without apparent symptoms, the virus could easily but unintentionally be passed from a child visiting a grandparent. Bhandari said asymptomatic cases could be a big contributor to community spread. 

“And we know that about 40% of the cases are asymptomatic, so when you're not showing any symptoms, and you're going other places, you're spreading it and so then it just continues to happen,'' she said. “And it makes it more difficult to intervene and stop the spread.”

For example, if a staff member of a long term care facility was asymptomatic and accidentally exposed a resident to the virus, it can easily spread among people with weakened immune systems who live in enclosed spaces.  

“A portion of people in long term care facilities may have dementia or Alzheimer's. And it's really difficult to get compliance with hand washing or physical distancing with someone who has dementia,” Bhandari said. “That just complicates these issues in these long-term care facilities.”

Seniors die from the virus at a higher rate than any other population. In rural areas, Bhandari said people may think that it only affects older people. 

“But it, but it begins to matter when it's when it's your loved one, right?” she said. 

Connecting With Veterans

Veterans staying in long-term care centers are also dealing with isolation and its impacts on their physical and mental well-being as the pandemic forces limitations on visits and social activities. Travis Martin is the director of the Kentucky Center for Veterans Studies at EKU. An Army veteran, he served from 2002 until 2006 and deployed to Iraq twice.

When the pandemic hit, he and his students wanted to help veterans stay connected with people outside. 

“A lot of times I've heard, not necessarily in veteran nursing homes, but from my students who work in other facilities, that veterans are often confined to their rooms. They're kept at a distance from staff, and they're just not given the opportunities to engage in physical and mental activities that would keep them healthy and in good spirits,” Martin said. 

Next year, the students in the Veterans Studies program at EKU will begin coordinating and recruiting volunteers to video chat with veterans. Anyone can volunteer to chat with a veteran and Martin said there are opportunities to volunteer over the holidays. 

Martin said the pandemic has been tough on everyone. Suicide rates among people on active duty are up by 20%. 

Martin said he sees how the pandemic “could possibly be a reminder of past traumas, or just  kind of a fear of a lack of control, whenever they thought they had returned home to safety.”

Martin said the women and men who served to protect and secure their country now depend on their countrymen to protect them.

“Suddenly they're older, and they're kind of in a situation where they're depending on the goodness of other people to protect them and keep them safe. And so that's a real vulnerable position to be in.”

The Ohio Valley ReSource gets support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and our partner stations. 

Jeff Young is managing editor of the Ohio Valley ReSource, a journalism collaboration led by Louisville Public Media.

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