State officials won’t answer questions after Coronavirus deaths at state-owned veterans home

Protecting veterans in nursing homes

SALISBURY, N.C. (WBTV) - Leaders at the North Carolina Department of Military and Veterans Affairs won’t answer questions about what, if anything, they are doing to provide oversight of the four veterans nursing homes owned by the agency during the coronavirus pandemic.

DMVA has four homes in Salisbury, Fayetteville, Black Mountain and Kinston. Each of them are operated by a private company called PruittHealth, through a state contract.

PruittHealth had previously announced the deaths of two veterans at the home in Salisbury because of COVID-19 but a company spokeswoman would not respond to a question Wednesday afternoon whether any additional veterans at that facility had died as a result of the virus. Nor would the spokeswoman provide information of any other veterans that had died at the state’s other three homes.

WBTV started asking questions about the state’s oversight of the four facilities after getting a call from Sally Nifong, whose grandfather, Van Thomas Kluttz, died of COVID-19 after contracting the virus at the Salisbury home.

Kluttz, who served in the Navy and was a Pearl Harbor survivor, was 95.

“I just find it very odd that he got sick that bad that fast,” Nifong said, adding that nobody told her family that Kluttz had the virus until after he died.

Nifong said her grandfather was in good physical condition for a 95-year-old and did not have any chronic health problems, like diabetes or a heart condition.

“Had I known that he was going to be, you know, even exposed to it, I wouldn’t brought him out, I would have brought him home with me, had I known. I thought he would have been safer there,” Nifong said.

Nifong said neither she nor her father had any indication Kluttz was sick until he was rushed to the emergency room, where he died less than a day later.

Sally Nifong and her family with her grandfather, Van Thomas Kluttz.
Sally Nifong and her family with her grandfather, Van Thomas Kluttz. (Source: Sally Nifong)

WBTV first sent emails to a spokeswoman for DMVA and, separately, a spokeswoman for PruittHealth last Wednesday. Neither woman responded until the following Tuesday, seven days later.

Angella Dunston, a spokeswoman for DMVA, did not provide specific details of what the state was doing to ensure veterans in the state-owned facilities were being properly cared for during the pandemic.

“The health and safety of our veteran community is a top priority of the Department as we combat the Covd-19 pandemic," Dunston said.

“As you know, the spread of the virus in nursing facilities is a major concern of state health officials and the Department has been working closely with our contracted nursing home management services company, PruittHealth, as well as the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the US Department of Veterans Affairs to protect veterans currently in state care,” Dunston continued.

But Dunston’s email did not list any specific steps DMVA was doing to ensure veterans were being properly cared for in the state-owned facilities. A WBTV reporter followed up to ask for specifics and Dunston did not provide any.

“Thanks for your patience while we deal with the health and safety of the people of NC during this pandemic,” Dunston said. “Our department will follow up with you tomorrow.”

State Senator Danny Britt (R-Robeson), who serves in the National Guard and monitors veterans issues as part of his work in the general assembly, said he hadn’t received any information about the veterans homes and is not aware of any briefing that have been conducted for his colleagues, either.

“All these veterans that are there, they risked their lives to defend our country. I’m a little bit concerned about what state oversight there might be,” Britt told WBTV. “I think if we’re asking these questions, we need to get the answers.”

A spokeswoman for PruittHealth, the company that operates the state-owned homes, said the company’s policies call for additional measures during the pandemic.

“Veterans Homes are expected to follow enhanced infection control protocols, including frequent increased cleanings, ceasing visitations, postponing communal activities, screening staff and patients daily, and restricting staff to only those who are essential personnel to safeguard the residents,” spokeswoman Amanda Henning said.

Nobody could answer questions from WBTV about what was being done to ensure those expectations were being met, even as veterans die at the state-owned homes of COVID-19.

Britt, the state senator, said he was troubled by the lack of transparency from DMVA.

“First I’d like to know where the transparency is in the process, why these answers aren’t coming. I feel like this is a major problem and should be one of our top concerns in the state right now,” he said.

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