Changes afoot at hard-hit Pennsylvania veterans home

Coronavirus in Pennsylvania

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration announced a new leader Wednesday at the Southeastern Veterans’ Center, where nearly three dozen residents have died from the coronavirus and a state senator urged the replacement of its leadership.

The state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs has named an acting commandant at the center, the agency said it a statement. It did not name the person, explain the circumstances that led to the appointment or what happened to the prior commandant.

The Southeastern Veterans’ Center had been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, with at least 35 residents dying from the virus, according to state data provided last week. The five other state-run veterans homes appear to have been far more successful in keeping the virus out.

The Southeastern Veterans’ Center has one of the highest death tolls among Pennsylvania’s homes and residential facilities for older adults. Residents of those homes have accounted for roughly two-thirds of the state’s 5,200 coronavirus-related deaths.

However, the scope of the outbreak inside the 238-bed Southeastern home had long been unclear, since the state health and veterans affairs departments did not report on cases and deaths there until recent days.

Relatives of residents have told The Philadelphia Inquirer that they were unaware of how widely the virus had spread — or that anyone had died there — until the newspaper reported it April 17.

A state lawmaker, Sen. Katie Muth, whose district includes the home, had urged state officials to remove its commandant and its nursing director, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

“It’s their inability to manage a staff to provide a high level of patient care,” Muth told the Inquirer.

Given the number of coronavirus deaths in state-run veterans homes across the country, Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania was one of several U.S. senators who asked this month for an investigation by the federal Government Accountability Office.

Maj. Gen. Tony Carelli, the state veterans affairs secretary, told lawmakers May 6 that he had sought inspections of the Southeastern Veterans’ Center as the death toll rose.

Federal, state and county inspections came back clean and showed the center had sound protocols in responding to the spread of the virus, Carelli told them.

State health inspectors visited May 1, Carelli told them, after he asked the health secretary to make an exception to her policy of suspending nursing home inspections during the pandemic.

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