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Heavily criticized veterans’ home sued over COVID outbreak

December 21, 2020 GMT

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A state-run veterans’ home in Pennsylvania heavily criticized for its handling of a coronavirus outbreak inside its walls drew a federal wrongful death lawsuit Monday, filed by family members of five residents who died of COVID-19.

The family members accuse Southeastern Veterans’ Center administrators of violating state and federal laws meant to protect nursing home residents, and failing to create and follow appropriate infection-control procedures and to ensure adequate staffing.

Further, they accuse administrators of being indifferent to suffering residents, denying sick residents timely transfers to hospitals and hiding the severity of their condition from family members.

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The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Philadelphia, seeks damages for civil rights violations, negligence and wrongful death. Gov. Tom Wolf’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Wolf earlier had ordered an investigation into the center by an outside law firm, which has not released a report.

The Southeastern Veterans’ Center is run by Wolf’s Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, which is named in the lawsuit, along with two former administrators who were put on leave in May after calls for investigations over conflicting reports about deaths at the facility in Chester County, outside Philadelphia.

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.

State data shows at least 42 residents of the 292-bed Southeastern Veterans’ Center have died of the virus, far more than any of the other six state-run veterans’ homes.

The lawsuit cites a report released in July in which state Health Department inspectors concluded that the center’s overseers ignored state and federal guidelines meant to control the virus in nursing homes.

The lapses put 128 of the facility’s 154 residents in “immediate jeopardy,” according to the Health Department — a legal finding that means Southeastern placed its patients at risk of serious injury or death.

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The June 9 inspection found that Southeastern didn’t isolate residents with COVID-19 from residents who had tested negative for the virus; failed to ensure that staff wore protective gear or washed their hands; shuttled nursing staff between COVID-positive units and regular units, and neglected to disinfect equipment.

A nurse also told inspectors that “we will be fired for talking to you,” according to the report.

One plaintiff, Christina Diaz, whose 87-year-old father, Paul Ferko, became ill and tested positive for the virus in a hospital before he died, has said that she and her sister came to suspect that overwhelmed Southeastern staff members were not telling them the truth about the seriousness of the outbreak or their inability to contain it.

At one point, the lawsuit cites an unnamed Southeastern aide as telling Diaz’s sister, Katrina Rivera, that Ferko “was so weak that nurses and aides had to hold his body upright” during a pre-arranged drive-by visit for Diaz to see him through his window after visitation had been shut down.

Another aide waved Ferko’s arm for him, “because he was too sick to do so himself,” the lawsuit said. Ferko died a week later.

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Follow Marc Levy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/timelywriter