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'This Is Not How We Want Our Veterans To Pass': N.H. Vet Home Head Discusses COVID Response

The past few weeks have taken a heavy toll on the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton. More than 20 veterans have died of COVID-19 there since mid-November, with several more still sick. All Things Considered host Peter Biello spoke with Commandant Peggy Labrecque of the New Hampshire Veterans Home about the situation there.

Peter Biello: What is the situation like there at the New Hampshire Veterans Home right now with your residents?

Peggy Labrecque: Of course, as you know and the public knows, it was November 10th when we got our first active bunch of residents who really showed high temperatures and a little bit of like nonproductive cough. Today, 23 days later, we have 41 active residents. We have 10 residents that recovered. But unfortunately, we do have 21 of our residents that have passed due to COVID-19. We have 35 active staff members and 32, thankfully, that have recovered and are not showing symptoms at this time. So, as you can imagine, with that amount of staffing and the extra care that that needs to be provided to our veterans, we reached out and were supported through a FEMA request. The governor wrote a letter in support of us, as well as our federal delegation, to get us some extra VA staffing. The first five staff showed up on the 21st of November, which we’re forever thankful for. And they do a 14-day deployment. We're letting them know that, you know, we're concerned about our staffing levels. And so we asked for help.

Peter Biello: And those staff members who recovered, are they able to get back on the job as long as they're not symptomatic and the timeframe has passed for them?

Peggy Labrecque: When I see them in the recovered bucket, then then, yes, as long as they are not showing any other symptoms or, you know, other comorbidities. So if we have an ongoing issue anyways, it may activate that, right? You may show up with pneumonia afterwards or a different something that's not directly related to COVID anymore, because now it's past its asymptomatic stage, but it may have kicked up something else.

Peter Biello: Gov. Sununu at his press conference yesterday gave the New Hampshire Veterans Home Credit for keeping COVID out for roughly eight and a half months of the pandemic. You and I have spoken about this as well. What do you think finally brought the virus into the veteran's home?

Peggy Labrecque: The community spread, Peter, in the Belknap County area and all around our building here has been itching its way up. Our staff members, they live in the community. They go to the grocery stores. You know, they have their children and their loved ones who are working out in the community. So I think truly that an asymptomatic staff member who did not realize that they had the virus brought it in. We have been testing the public health guidelines. So it's a very sneaky virus, I guess I would say.

Peter Biello: So what's morale like right now for staff and for residents?

Peggy Labrecque: You know, staff are tired. They're working overtime. They're trying to cover other shifts, as well as their own. Some are working six and seven days, straight. So they're tired. And the residents, on the other hand, they're resilient. I can't tell you, you know, they've been through wars. And so to me, this is another battle. And I sometimes think they're doing better than we are. But they do worry about their comrades. They see their friends getting sick. But again, we are a nursing home. And so they know that that's a reality that we deal with here on a daily basis. Although this is not how we want our veterans to pass, we certainly don't want them to contract this kind of virus and to lose so many so quickly.

Peter Biello: What are you doing? What can be done to keep up people's spirits in this very dark time?

Peggy Labrecque: To look towards hope, that this too, we will get this virus out of our home and our residents will go on to live a good life until the very end. And that's why we keep saying that, you know, you're doing the very best that you can and we appreciate you being here. Our staff, we can't thank them enough. And that's the only thing we can do, is look to the positive and the bright. Yes. That this is the darkness that we need to get through.

Peter Biello: Thank you very much for speaking with me. And again, we're very sorry to hear about the news of the loss of so many veterans.

Peggy Labrecque: Thank you, Peter. We truly appreciate you. And again, send all your thoughts and prayers to our veterans and people throughout the state of New Hampshire who are battling this illness.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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