COVID-19 deaths at one of the state’s four assisted living centers for veterans have more than doubled in the past week as work to limit the spread of coronavirus was complicated by trying to control infections among residents with memory problems.
The Colorado Department of Human Services said Thursday that nine residents of the Veterans Community Living Center at Fitzsimons have now died from the virus, up from three the week before. A total of 42 residents and 13 staff members have tested positive for the illness since the facility’s first diagnosed case on April 17.
There have been no identified cases at any of the other three veterans nursing homes operated by the state.
Perry May, deputy executive director of Health Facilities for CDHS, said that the initial case was diagnosed in a resident from the center’s memory care unit, which houses veterans and their family members suffering from late-stage memory-related disorders such as dementia or Alzheimer’s.
“It’s difficult to get those folks to wear a mask or to social distance,” May said. He said the center hasn’t given up on trying to enforce those practices, though these residents often remove masks minutes after being reminded to put them on.
“That certainly does contribute to them not understanding what's going on and becoming worried and staff are working very, very hard to help them understand,” May said.
There have been seven positive cases in the memory care unit, May said. After the discovery of the initial cases, CDHS called in the Colorado National Guard to test all the facility’s residents for coronavirus.
The center has been screening personnel for symptoms and prohibiting non-essential visitation since the second week of March. Staff wear full personal protective equipment and stay within designated wings to prevent the spread of the virus from one part of the facility to another. Communal meals and group activities have all been canceled.
Despite that preparation, May said the “insidious nature of this virus” won out.
“These are veterans who risked their lives to protect us. So now it's our turn to protect them,” May said. “And as you build a relationship with these folks and see the virus come into the facility...as hard as you're doing things in your personal life to keep it out, it makes its way in somehow. It's devastating to our staff.”
Of the 13 staff members who have tested positive for COVID-19, seven have since recovered and have returned to work. That’s out of 250 total who work at the facility. May has been able to pull workers from other parts of CDHS and sought help from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade to find volunteers to keep Fitzsimmons fully staffed.
CDHS said the Veterans Community Living Center at Fitzsimons currently has 137 residents, including four World War II veterans.
Editor's Note: This story was updated with new infection and death numbers provided on Thursday.