Ardmore VA center deaths surpass county’s total death toll in two weeks

Robby Short
The Oklahoma Veterans Center in Ardmore Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021.

The death of an Ardmore Veterans Center resident on Saturday marked the 20th such death at the facility since Dec. 16. 

An outbreak of COVID-19 at the Ardmore Veterans Center that started early last month has nearly 80 residents currently receiving treatment, 10 of which were hospitalized. Elected officials say they are aware of this situation described by a veterans advocate as a place where fellow veterans are dying “like fish in a barrel.”

The situation at the center does not match reported data from state health officials, however. As of Saturday, one additional death linked to the disease had been reported in Carter County, a male aged 39-49 on New Years Eve, bringing the reported total to 18 according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

Due to delays in reporting, the official numbers do not accurately reflect the actual total number of deaths in the county and may not for weeks. According to OSDH data compiled by the Ardmoreite, only three Carter County deaths were reported in December. It is unclear which, if any, of the 20 deaths that have occurred at the Ardmore VA Center have yet been reported.

Statewide, an additional 38 deaths were reported on Saturday, with the deaths of 122 Oklahomans being reported since New Years Eve, bringing the total reported deaths associated with the disease to 2,527 since March.

Shawn Kirkland, director of homes for the Oklahoma Department of Veteran Affairs confirmed the latest resident’s death on Saturday in an email to The Ardmoreite. He said the center has seen 109 total confirmed cases since Dec. 8, when the facility's first case of the pandemic was recorded. 

On Saturday, ten residents were being treated at hospitals while 66 remained isolated within the facility receiving treatment. Of the facility’s infected residents, six have recovered. Kirkland said COVID-19 care at the facility includes staff wearing appropriate PPE around the clock and hospital-grade respiratory protective equipment for that unit. 

“In regards to mitigation efforts, the facility has constructed dedicated covid units that are under negative air pressure to isolate the residents that test positive,” he said. “We have also purchased multiple Clorox 360 electrostatic disinfecting systems and two hospital grade Tru-D UVC disinfecting robots that are used throughout the facility everyday.”

Like any death certification in Oklahoma, the process to verify a COVID-19 death involves multiple steps and people. Natural deaths can often be verified by a physician, but an OSDH surveillance group reviews information from a death that may have been linked to COVID-19.

“After they go through a confirmation process, which can take days or weeks, the death will post to the county where they were residing, so those whose cause of death is listed as COVID-19 who were residing at the Ardmore VA at the time of their death will count in Carter County,” said Julie Williamson, public information officer for the Oklahoma Department of Health, in an email on Saturday. 

According to Williamson, the department's most recent report from the Ardmore Veterans Center, dated Dec. 24, 2020, showed three confirmed cases, two of which had recovered. 

“I am very discouraged and concerned with the current status of COVID at the Ardmore Veterans Center," Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Springer, said in an email to the Ardmoreite on Saturday. 

"Ardmore (VA center) had remained COVID free until early December when the first positive COVID case was detected. I know personally that the staff is working long and difficult hours to limit the spread in the Ardmore Center. I am saddened at the toll this terrible disease has taken on my fellow veterans.  My priority is to monitor the situation and ensure that the Ardmore Center has everything they need to combat this outbreak," said Springer, who also chairs the Oklahoma Senate Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.

“All of the centers across the state have had some kind of an outbreak. It tends to follow the county/community spread and trends with how the counties are experiencing increases in cases," Rep. Tammy Townley, R-Ardmore, said in an email to the Ardmoreite. 

"As you know, Carter County has experienced a significant increase in recent weeks. Please know that our local staff have gone above and beyond the call of duty to take care of our heroes. Unfortunately, Covid is a highly contagious virus that can go undetected in so many people and potentially has a deadly effect on the most vulnerable populations like long-term care residents.” 

The center adopted a policy that banned visitors at the onset of the pandemic in March. Multiple sources, including Simpson and Townley, believe that a staff member introduced the virus to the facility as an asymptomatic carrier. 

Carter County resident and veteran advocate Todd Larkin expressed his frustration with the outbreak in an email sent to local representatives on Saturday and shared with media organizations. 

“We are almost a year into this pandemic and yet we are watching war heroes die because politicians are more concerned with thing (sic) more important than their constituents, “ Larkin said. “I am a 2x OEF Veteran and I have met with both of you trying to get your help on Veterans issues and again here we are,” he said, referring to Operation Enduring Freedom. 

“I am begging and pleading for help for Oklahoma Veterans. We shouldn’t have to watch them die like fish in a barrel. What’s your plan Senator Simpson? What will you do to help Veterans that have done so much for you, Representative Townley?”

OSDH data released on Saturday showed an increase of 149 new COVID-19 cases in Carter County since New Years Eve. Active cases within the county jumped by nearly 70 new cases on Saturday alone. 

The true number of coronavirus cases is likely higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.

Statewide, Oklahoma reported 5,119 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 Saturday. The total was more than the state’s combined cases from the beginning of the pandemic through May 27.

As of Saturday, 50,330 of the state’s supply of 174,900 vaccines had been distributed, according to OSDH data. The first phase of the state’s four-phase vaccination plan started last month and directed vaccines to the pandemic’s front line workers, including long-term care facility staff.

“We have contracted with CVS/Walgreens as part of the national effort to vaccinate employees and residents of long term care facilities," Kirkland said. "We are expecting to receive a date confirmation from these partners any day for the clinics to start in Ardmore. Outside of that, we’ve had a small number of employees that have been able to receive the vaccine through a local clinic put on by the health department. Employees and residents are both tested in house twice per week at a minimum so these numbers do change quickly at times.”

Beginning this week, health departments across Oklahoma will start offering vaccinations to the state’s most vulnerable population, those age 65 and older. According to OSDH data, 14% of the states confirmed cases and 80% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths have befallen this age group.

The Health Department will provide vaccinations starting Jan. 5 at the Ardmore Convention Center, 2401 N. Rockford from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and continue every Tuesday through January 

“We are viewing this as our light at the end of the tunnel with the pandemic. We urge all eligible Oklahomans to get the vaccine as soon as it is available to them." said Mendy Spohn, Regional Administrative Director for Oklahoma State Department of Health District 8. "There will be continuing supplies coming into the state, and we will keep adding populations to the eligibility list as soon as we can open it up.”

The events are open to first responders, healthcare workers, and Oklahomans aged 65 and up. Individuals are ask no to attend if they are currently under isolation or quarantine recommendations.

“We definitely have a sense of urgency based on what our medical partners are seeing in the hospitals due to this virus.” Spohn said. “Please help our healthcare system by continuing to wear a mask, wash your hands and watch your distance as these are still key components of minimizing the spread of COVID at this time.”