No one has died from coronavirus at the Bedford VA Medical Center.
At least not yet.
Officials called in two mobile morgues over the last week to the 450-bed facility as the number of patients and staff who tested positive for the coronavirus skyrocketed.
VA spokeswoman Kat Bailey said it’s just a precaution, giving the facility additional space to refrigerate bodies if the existing morgue becomes overcrowded.
But for families of patients and residents at the long-term care facility on VA grounds, the mobile morgues symbolize their worst fears.
“The conditions are very difficult, “ said Helga Amidon, whose husband, Charles, 85, has been at the Bedford VA since 2014. The highly decorated retired lieutenant colonel has advanced Parkinson’s disease and can do very little without help.
His wife said she hasn’t been able to visit or speak to him for a month. Visitors are not allowed, and he’s physically unable to use the phone. She doesn’t know how he is coping during the pandemic.
“I have absolutely no idea how he is,“ she said. “There’s no sense calling. They don’t tell you the truth."
VA officials acknowledge that they have enforced a no-visitor policy since March 10, but Bailey said the Bedford VA is setting up a hotline to keep families updated on veterans’ well-being throughout the outbreak.
Two weeks ago, only two Bedford VA patients and two employees had tested positive. By Tuesday, VA officials confirmed that 40 patients and 38 employees in Bedford were infected with the coronavirus. The number includes eight veterans from the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home who were moved to the Bedford VA in a special 22-bed COVID-19 unit.
On Monday, officials of the Bedford VA Medical Center told employees they were reassigning staff to handle an increase in bed capacity for coronavirus patients.
“If you receive direction about a reassignment,” director Joan Clifford wrote in an e-mail, “we ask you to receive this with an open mind and heart, keeping in mind that we are all in this together."
There have been no deaths at the Bedford VA —though six have died in the Boston VA system, which includes hospitals in Jamaica Plain, West Roxbury, and Brockton and five community clinics. A total of 81 patients and 49 employees at Boston VA facilities have tested positive for the virus.
The Bedford VA’s morgue can handle four bodies, according to employees who have worked there. The mobile morgues are larger. One employee said the sight of the truck parked outside a patient building “makes me sick to my stomach."
Calling in mobile morgues, Bailey said, is a "precautionary measure and will be used in accordance with our pandemic response plan for any requirements to expand our current morgue capacity and operations. "
But that is little reassurance to Amidon and her son, Christopher, who have complained about Charles’ care in the past — food trays left unserved, trash on the floor, nurses not changing their gloves between patients. They’re even more worried now that they can’t help him with his daily routine.
“There’s not much I can do but pray,” she said.
Some employees worry that the Bedford facility is not a good place to treat coronavirus patients, in part because the buildings are old and poorly ventilated. Building 4, where Amidon lives, for example, lacks central air conditioning, relying instead on window units that could recirculate contaminated air if controls aren’t properly adjusted.
And some employees say they have not been given adequate protective gear and were not properly trained in use of the gear they do have. In late March, an employee complained to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration that “employees are exposed to COVID-19″ without proper protective gear.
“I’m so stressed,” said one employee, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. “This is supposed to be peoples’ home. We were always cited for failing to use protection. But now it’s an acute care hospital and we’re not up to it."
VA officials said the facility is able to ensure the safety of its patients and employees and is well stocked with protective gear for employees.
“We are continually monitoring the status of of those items to ensure a robust supply chain,” said Bailey, who said the agency follows Centers for Disease Control guidelines for protective equipment. "If any employee feels that they do not have the equipment to do their job, they should immediately let their supervisor or facility leadership know. "
The Bedford VA is not a traditional acute care hospital, with an emergency room and intensive care unit. In addition to providing health care and psychiatric services, the VA houses about 250 residents live in four long-term care buildings — the VA’s version of nursing homes. That population is especially vulnerable because they can have chronic illnesses and face a host of medical problems.
Even in better times, staff did not always follow the strict rules meant to prevent the spread of infections, according to 2018 inspection reports by an outside company, Long Term Care Institute.
“Based on observation, interview and record review, the [facility] did not maintain an infection prevention and control program designed to help prevent the development and transmission of disease and infection,” the inspectors wrote of the Bedford VA.
Bailey said the facility is careful to isolate infected patients and follow “CDC guidance and VA protocols” to minimize risk for employees and veterans.
Helga Amidon hopes her husband stays alive at least until May 5, when the couple will celebrate their 59th anniversary.
“He’s a really good person and looked out for others," she said. “He deserves better.”
Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.