The WAAY 31 I-TEAM confirmed, Friday morning that seven residents of the Floyd E. 'Tut' Fann State Veterans Home in Huntsville have died in the last two weeks.
HMR Veterans Services, an outside group which oversees day-to-day operations at the home, said the Alabama Department of Public Health has not confirmed any of the deaths as COVID-related at this time.
Friday afternoon, the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs said four of the seven residents who died tested positive for coronavirus prior to their deaths. However, we don’t know when they tested positive or if their death is COVID-related. It could take ADPH two weeks to determine the cause of death.
A 'Tut' Fann employee told WAAY 31 on Thursday the number of people dying and what's going on inside the home is far different than what the state reported.
The employee contacted the WAAY 31 I-TEAM after the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs announced 26 active coronavirus cases, but no coronavirus deaths. Earlier this week, a family told WAAY 31 their loved one tested positive for coronavirus before dying at Tut Fann. The State VA said its coronavirus numbers for Tut Fann will not reflect a death until it's confirmed by the Alabama Department of Public Health.
An employee who works at the home, and provided multiple forms of proof of their employment, also told us two employees recently died. HMR Veterans Services did confirm two employees passed away.
The State VA told us one employee who died tested positive for coronavirus about six weeks earlier, but the exact cause of death is not known at this time. The other employee had not had a positive COVID test at the time of their death, according to the State VA.
"Our prayers and support will continue to be provided to these team members and everyone in our community who has struggled with illness and loss during this crisis," HMR Veterans Services said in an email to WAAY 31.
We also asked the company questions about how it's keeping staff safe, after an employee told us CDC regulations and Alabama Department of Public Health Guidelines were not being followed. The company told us staff have been directed to use one of the two alternate routes to access certain areas of the home unless they have a reason to enter the designated COVID positive area.
"There is a breezeway entrance from outside beyond the COVID unit that leads directly to the entrance of the Memory Care unit. The facility has placed a temporary barrier between that breezeway and the end of the COVID unit to create a separate space. All staff needing to provide care and services to our non-designated area have been instructed to use this entrance. There is also a direct route to the day room through the interior courtyard. Staff can also deliver supplies and services through this route. As the need for more or less space changes, we are able to alter these routes to maintain adequate separation," HMR Veterans Services said.
The company also told us it's conducting weekly universal testing of all staff and veterans and have been doing so for two weeks. Prior to that it was testing all staff and veterans every two weeks.
"The facility follows (The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) guidelines for return to work strategies. We follow the test-based approach, requiring all positive employees to quarantine for ten (10) days and have two negative tests after that 10 days in order to return to work. When a staff member presents with symptoms, they are immediately removed from duty, tested again, and required to quarantine until those results are back," the company said in an email to WAAY 31.
The company also told us it's requiring all staff to use PPE while in the facility, therefore minimizing any potential direct exposure of staff," it explained.
"That, paired with weekly Universal Testing, allows for staff to continue working even with positive cases in the facility. Frequent testing, timely results and immediate response has become our best tool in our efforts to identify, contain and better control exposure," HMR Veterans Services said.
The Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs sent us this statement when we asked about the deaths:
"We have indeed learned much over the past five months. First, we have learned the continuing value of partnerships with other agencies such as the federal VA, Alabama Department of Public Health, the Alabama National Guard, Alabama Emergency Management Agency, the CDC, and local officials. We have been grateful for those partnerships and intend to keep them going strongly.
"Next, we have learned the value of taking immediate yet appropriate measures when a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic hits, such as restrictions on outside visitors, meticulous screening of residents and staff, and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), and other safe medical practices. While we completely understand that these precautions can cause inconveniences to our treasured residents, families, and staff, they have ultimately proven to be effective in a very tough situation. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of our veteran residents and with the community as well during these challenging times. "
WAAY 31 asked the State VA and HMR Veterans Services if seven deaths in two weeks is abnormally high for the home. The VA said there’s no way to know without a formal study.
Stay with WAAY 31 for updates on this developing story.