Officials meet to discuss COVID-19 outbreak at Ardmore Veterans Center as death toll rises

Sierra Rains
Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs Executive Director Joel Kinstel speaks during a meeting at the Ardmore Convention Center. The meeting was held to discuss a recent COVID-19 outbreak at the local veterans center.

State leaders gathered Thursday morning to address concerns regarding an outbreak of COVID-19 at the Ardmore Veterans Center. 

Three additional deaths were recorded at the facility that same morning, bringing the total number of confirmed deaths to 27. Shawn Kirkland, director of homes for the Oklahoma Department of Veteran Affairs, confirmed that there has been a total of 109 cases of COVID-19 at the Ardmore Veterans Center since Dec. 8, and 51 active cases remaining. 

The facility began implementing safety procedures, including regular testing and a policy banning visitors, at the onset of the pandemic in March. Despite safeguards, a staff member is believed to have introduced the virus to the facility as an asymptomatic carrier.

After news of the outbreak spread, many community members expressed deep concern and raised questions regarding the actions being taken to prevent further loss of life. 

A meeting was held at the Ardmore Convention Center, with the head of the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs, Joel Kinstel, and other administrators, including Shawn Kirkland, as well as Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Springer, and State Reps. Tammy Townley, R-Ardmore, and Tommy Hardin, R-Madill, in attendance. 

The meeting was held in an open format, giving the floor to a crowd consisting largely of veterans and their friends and family.

Todd Larkin, a local Carter County resident and veteran advocate, has been vocal about his frustration with the outbreak and was the first to speak. 

“These are men who have served our country, these are 27 men who served in our most deadly wars, only to come home and die in a facility ran by the very organization that’s supposed to take care of us after we come home,” Larkin said, regarding the recent number of deaths.

Larkin expressed indignation for the vaccination process, which legislators agreed has not been carried out as smoothly as it should have been. 

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. Oklahomans over 65 were included in the vaccine expansion this week. 

Todd Larkin, a local Carter County resident and veterans advocate, addresses Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs Executive Director Joel Kinstel and State Rep. Tammy Townley at a meeting Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021.

However, officials have had issues with the speed of distribution. Under a federal contract with CVS, the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs has not been able to widely distribute the vaccine. 

ODVA Director Joel Kinstel said the contract prohibits the state health department from administering the vaccine to long-term care facility staff and residents. 

“We are required to use the federal contractor," Kinstel said. "People were grouped in phases and long-term care centers were supposed to be up to bat first. But what’s happened is the federal contractor that was engaged through our operation in Washington DC has not rolled out the vaccine very quickly at all.”

Because of the lag in distribution, the phases in which individuals were supposed to receive the vaccine have been out of order in some cases. Janis Arrington, a local teacher, said she received a vaccine before her brother at the veterans center, who still has yet to be vaccinated. 

“There is something wrong there,” Arrington said. She expressed great concern for her brother’s wellness and urged the legislators to help do something to get the staff at the veterans center vaccinated faster. 

“If you don’t vaccinate those healthcare workers and you turn them away from being vaccinated, how do you think it’s going to get back in there and infect more of our veterans in that building?” Arrington said. “From those healthcare workers.”

“I 100% agree,” Kinstel said in reply. Sen. Frank Simpson, who is a veteran himself, said he and Kinstel have been working very hard to change the contract so that their staff may get vaccinations at the local health department. 

“I am on the phone and I am visiting with people probably about eight to 10 hours a day about this very problem,” Simpson said, adding that they have been trying to get something done at a federal level in order to increase the supply of vaccinations. “We are working our butts off to get something done.”

The issue, Simpson said, is not just at the Ardmore Veterans Center, but across the seven veterans centers in the state and at least 75 long-term care facilities. The vaccine supply dictated by the federal government is also the same one care facilities are taking. 

“This is a very broad problem,” Simpson said. “It not only affects the seven centers, it affects a large number of long-term care facilities who are in jeopardy of the same kind of problem we’re facing here in Ardmore.” 

A more immediate solution is also being carried out this week. On Friday, all of the veterans at the Ardmore Veterans Center who are medically able to be vaccinated are going to be transported to a federal veterans hospital in Oklahoma City to receive their first round of vaccinations. 

At this time, Kinstel said there will be around 10 veterans being transported to Oklahoma City. Individuals cannot receive the vaccination if COVID-19 is already present in their body as the vaccine could increase the severity of the virus in active cases. 

For Arrington and many others in the crowd on Thursday, the news of the outbreak struck a personal cord. “One death is like losing my brother and I’ve cried over each death that has happened down that street,” Arrington said. 

But amid the distress, Arrington and others expressed gratitude for the state leadership and those at the veterans center working diligently. Bruce Hammond, a veteran and local business owner, said he simply wants to help be a part of the solution. 

“Every death is a tragic loss, but don’t mistake what those members on the inside of the VA center have done for many years to protect our veterans and our heroes,” Hammond said. “They do a good job. I know many of them personally that have held the hands of those veterans and wept as they took their last breath.” 

Following the meeting, Kinstel expressed appreciation for the staff at the Ardmore Veterans Center, who he said worked hard to keep the residents safe during an unprecedented time and will keep doing so. 

“Ardmore was the last of the seven facilities that the virus got in with the residents and the staff was able to keep it out for nine months,” Kinstel said. “There’s very few other facilities in Oklahoma at this point that would have kept the virus out that long. So I’m very proud of them, they’ve worked so hard, and they’ll keep working.”