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More than 100 COVID-19 cases, 23 deaths at Bill Nichols veterans home in Alexander City

More than 100 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed at an East Alabama veterans home among residents and staff, and nearly two dozen residents have died from the virus since early April, the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs said Tuesday.

At least 91 residents have tested positive for the virus at the Bill Nichols State Veterans Home in Alexander City, Alabama, in Tallapoosa County, a department spokesperson said in an email.

At least 41 residents remain ill with the virus, and 23 have died.

Forty-one employees at the state-run veterans home have tested positive. Twelve of those have recovered and are back on staff, the department said.

Three employees have also tested positive at the William F. Green State Veterans Home in Bay Minette.

The department, in the statement, said there are currently no reports of residents testing positive at other state veterans homes in Bay Minette, Huntsville and Pell City.

In an email to APR, Horton said the Nichols veterans home saw its cases increase when the home was able to test all residents beginning on April 18, “which allowed the home to identify those residents who were asymptomatic.”

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State Veterans Affairs Commissioner Kent Davis is now “advocating for universal testing of residents at all state veterans homes,” Horton said.

Senior living facilities, nursing homes and long-term care facilities have been hit especially hard by COVID-19, which is far more deadly for those who are older and those who have underlying medical conditions. Early on, testing supply shortages made it difficult to test residents at long-term care facilities.

Horton said state veterans homes began screening all employees before they entered facilities on March 10. By March 12, veterans homes began restricting visitations to staff, necessary medical personnel and immediate families of residents who faced end-of-life situations.

The first employee tested positive for COVID-19 at Bill Nichols on March 30, and the employee was not allowed to enter the home. At the time, CDC guidelines called for residents of long-term care facilities to be tested only if they exhibited symptoms. By April 3, the first resident showed symptoms, and by April 8, the first resident had tested positive for the virus.

“At the request of ADVA Commissioner Kent Davis, two independent reviews by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, April 20, and the Alabama Department of Public Health, April 21, show that the home has followed all VA, CDC, and state health guidelines for the use personal protective equipment and other preventive measures,” the state VA said in a statement to APR.

Across the state, more than 1,046 long-term care residents have tested positive for the virus, and 667 long-term care facility employees have tested positive.

As of May 4, at least 107 long-term care facility residents had died, which accounted for about 36 percent of the state’s deaths at the time. By Tuesday, the number of deaths among Alabama long-term care facility residents increased to 183, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

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The state’s nursing home association has called for more testing of residents and staff for months, including testing for those who are asymptomatic.

“It’s getting better, but we’re still not where we want to be,” a spokesperson for the association said last week. “I’m not casting any blame on the Alabama Department of Public Health. They’ve worked with us hand-in-hand. But when there’s just not enough tests available, there are not enough tests available.”

Across the country, nursing homes and long-term care facilities, including veterans homes, have been devastated by the virus. In New Jersey, half of the state’s COVID-19 fatalities have been linked to nursing homes. At a state veterans’ home in New Jersey, at least 74 deaths have been linked to the virus.

“Residents who test positive for the virus are moved to isolation areas inside the homes for further care and treatment,” the department’s statement said. “Employees who exhibit symptoms of the virus are prohibited entry into the facilities. The ADVA and HMR are working closely with the Alabama Department of Public Health, CDC, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, on all reported positive cases.”

Chip Brownlee is a former political reporter, online content manager and webmaster at the Alabama Political Reporter. He is now a reporter at The Trace, a non-profit newsroom covering guns in America.

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