Every day, Marice Raymond received the same message, she said: Moses Raymond, her husband and a resident of the Bedford Veterans Affairs Medical Center, was fine. The 78-year-old Vietnam War veteran had COVID-19, but she thought he had recovered. He was OK, the staff told her on the morning of May 10.
On May 11, he was dead.
“I don’t understand how he could get that sick that quick and die in a matter of hours," Raymond said. “Someone didn’t tell me the truth.”
Now, several members of Congress are asking whether the Bedford VA is providing safe and humane care after 48 veterans and one staffer died from COVID-19. That includes 11 of the 18 residents in the dementia ward, where Moses Raymond lived, according to one staffer.
In a letter to VA leaders, Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren and Representatives Seth Moulton and Lori Trahan said they are concerned that staffers who tested positive continued to work and had “unsafe encounters” with staff, patients, and emergency responders.
The members of Congress said they had gotten complaints that employees with COVID-19 symptoms were required to keep working, and that some didn’t follow social distancing rules or were not wearing the required protective equipment.
They also suggested that families — who have not been allowed to visit for several months — have not been kept informed about what’s going on at the facility.
“The multiple concerns raised by our constituents, some of whom are family members of veterans, deserve the attention of senior leadership at the Bedford VAMC," wrote the congressional members to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and Ryan Lilly, head of the New England VA system. "As you know, although they occurred under previous leadership, there have been serious reports of deficiencies in patient care at the Bedford VAMC in the past.”
The Bedford VA faced public criticism after an elderly veteran died in 2016 while the nurse’s aide assigned to monitor him was playing video games. The nurse’s aide retired and pleaded guilty in federal court to making false statements. She was sentenced to a year’s probation.
Bedford VA spokeswoman Kat Bailey disputed the concerns raised in the letter, saying, “Our employees have performed exceptionally well throughout this national emergency, providing lifesaving care to hundreds of veterans.”
She said any employee or patient showing COVID symptoms is “immediately isolated to prevent potential spread to others.” Employees with symptoms, she said, are sent to their primary care doctors for further evaluation and treatment.
“All employees are required to comply with the VA’s universal masking policy, perform routine hand hygiene practices, and practice social distancing,” Bailey said.
The Bedford VA is not a traditional acute care hospital that has an emergency room and an intensive care unit. Instead, it provides health care and psychiatric services, as well as housing, to about 250 residents who 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.
Yet the Bedford facility had no fatalities from the pandemic until mid-April. But by then, the VA had called in mobile morgue trucks as a precaution. Within days, on April 16, the VA had its first pandemic fatalities. As of May 29, there had been 28 deaths at the hospital, 12 deaths of Bedford patients sent to other medical facilities, eight outpatient deaths, and one employee death.
Bedford VA staffers told the Globe that they suspect the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths spiked in April partly as a result of a decision to bring in veterans who had tested positive for COVID-19 from the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home. They were kept in a separate unit, but staff members said that some employees, including housekeepers and nursing aides, may have inadvertently spread the virus because they were working in on both COVID and non-COVID units.
“I didn’t like the floaters,” said one staffer, referring to employees who work in multiple units. “You’re floating them all over the hospital, because they’re short-staffed. It’s not containing the virus — it’s spreading it.”
Bailey declined to say whether the Chelsea veterans may have sparked the outbreak at the Bedford VA, or whether staff may have had a role in spreading the virus.
The toll from the pandemic was severe in the dementia ward, where Moses Raymond lived. More than half of its residents died, according to one staff member’s count, and all but one contracted the virus. Raymond — a Hudson resident and business owner who was “particularly proud of his Corvette,” according to his obituary — succumbed to the virus at Lahey Clinic in Burlington.
“They treated him well — except when he got sick,” said Marice, his wife of 54 years.
But she hadn’t seen him since February and was surprised when she received a call on the afternoon of May 10, telling her that he had been taken to the Lahey Clinic. The VA staff told her he was fine in the morning. He died the next afternoon, she said.
In their letter, Markey, Warren, Moulton, and Trahan said they sympathized with staff who have the difficult job of working with patients infected with a highly contagious disease.
“We understand that the Bedford VAMC, like the rest of the VA Healthcare System, is operating under difficult and unprecedented circumstances as it responds to this pandemic, and we join you in mourning the death of one Bedford employee from COVID-19,” the letter said.
But they said they wanted answers to several questions, including what steps the Bedford VA has taken to enforce safety protocols and what discipline was meted out to people who failed to follow them. They also asked how the VA communicates with residents’ families.
Bailey said the Bedford VA heard concerns raised by families seeking more up-to-date information about residents. The VA set up a family communication hot line, she said, and publishes a weekly newsletter to keep families informed. She said that the Bedford VA’s director, Joan Clifford, also holds weekly conference calls with families.
Andrea Estes can be reached at email@example.com.