KIRAN: Loved ones claim lack of transparency, inconsistencies from Veterans Affairs

THE INVESTIGATORS: Loved ones claim lack of transparency, inconsistencies from Veterans Affairs

RESERVE, La. (WAFB) - The veterans home in Reserve, La. in St. John the Baptist Parish has been especially hit hard with coronavirus deaths, more than two dozen so far.

In the past month, 43 residents of the home have died. However, administrators insist only 24 of those deaths were from coronavirus.

The 9News Investigators spoke to three families who recently lost their loved ones at the Southeast Louisiana Reserve Veterans home. All are now asking if enough was done at the home to save lives.

ONE-STOP-SHOP: Everything you need to know related to Baton Rouge area impact of COVID-19

“These guys were heroes, and it killed me to see them treated like that,” said Bradley Wellons. “It killed me to think that many died.”

“I think they were hiding a lot,” Mary Firmin said of the death of her husband. “I think there’s more to it than what’s put out there.”

“We should have been called the moment they knew they had one person with the virus,” said Valerie Willman.

Joey Strickland is the secretary over the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs. He’s appointed by the governor.

In an interview with the 9News Investigators, he said the home is doing all it can.

“This is one of the biggest challenges that I’ve had in my career,” said Strickland.

“My husband passed away at the nursing home on March 28th,” said Firmin.

James Firmin is pictured here with his wife Mary.
James Firmin is pictured here with his wife Mary. (Source: Family)

James Firmin served in the Army in the 1960s and was married to his wife Mary for 56 years.

After dementia kicked in about 12 years ago, he was recently housed at the veterans home in Reserve.

His wife remembers getting a call on March 25 from the doctor at the veterans home saying that James had been diagnosed with the coronavirus.

“They never tested him. The only way I know for sure (he had it) is because the doctor told me that’s what he had,” said Firmin.

She says she asked the doctor how he knew it was coronavirus.

“I don’t know, I guess from the symptoms is what he’s saying and I asked him, ‘Are you going to test him?’ He said, ‘I don’t have a testing kit with me,’” Firmin said.

Mr. Firmin died at 77 years old.

He’s buried now and his wife said she still does not know the cause of death.

Despite her asking the doctor and coroner to test her husband, she said no one did. There was a lack of testing supplies at the time.

“It would be a closure,” said Firmin.

Ras Eugene Deakles, 71, died April 4 at the Reserve veterans home. He served 12 years in the Army. His wife Sue Deakles and their daughter Valerie Willman remember seeing him a few days before he died.
Ras Eugene Deakles, 71, died April 4 at the Reserve veterans home. He served 12 years in the Army. His wife Sue Deakles and their daughter Valerie Willman remember seeing him a few days before he died. (Source: Family)

Ras Eugene Deakles, 71, died April 4th at the Reserve veterans home. He had served 12 years in the Army. His wife Sue Deakles and their daughter Valerie Willman remember seeing him a few days before he died.

“On Thursday, we FaceTimed him and he was fine,” said Deakles.

“He was eating his ice cream. My dad loved to fish. He loved the Red Sox more than anything in the world. He would literally give people the shirt off his back,” said Willman.

Later that same night, the mother and daughter said they got a call from the home that Deakles was running a fever of 101 and his oxygen level was low.

The next day, they said the doctor at the home started him on two medications to treat the Coronavirus -Hydroxychloroquine and a Z-pac.

But, they never knew whether he even had COVID-19 even though the family asked that he be tested.

“He was not tested until he died,” said Deakles.

Both said the doctor told them their loved one died from a massive heart attack. But, they say, Deakles had no underlying heart conditions, only diabetes.

They worry about the medication he’d recently been put on.

“I believe it was the medicine. It says it can cause heart arrhythmia in some people, and all the medicine combined that he was already taking on top of this medicine, I’ve talked to numerous people who say it can cause a heart attack,” said Willman.

Kennard Wellons, 86, was a Korean War veteran in the Air Force.
Kennard Wellons, 86, was a Korean War veteran in the Air Force. (Source: family)

Then there’s Kennard Wellons, 86, a Korean War veteran in the Air Force.

Once again, the family said he was never tested for coronavirus despite his son Bradley Wellons’ requests to the staff at the home.

“[I asked] Well can we have him tested? [They said] Well we don’t have the test,” said Wellons.

In Wellons’ case, Bradley said he got the call that his dad only had a few hours to live.

Wellons went to the home on April 13 and remembers he was required to put on lots of personal protective equipment or PPE.

“It used to be a very warm and welcoming place. Then on Monday, walking in, you feel like a martian walking on Mars,” said Wellons.

A few hours later, Bradley’s dad died while he held his hand. He was one of the several coronavirus deaths the coroner counted.

KIRAN: How many deaths do you have at the Reserve veterans home from the coronavirus?

DR. MONTEGUT: As of today (4/14), this morning, we have 19 deaths at that facility.

Dr. Christy Montegut is the coroner in St. John the Baptist Parish.

At the time of the interview last week, the 19 deaths at the home made up nearly 40% of all the people in that parish who had died from coronavirus.

The Reserve veterans home was identified as one of the state’s coronavirus clusters.

The home is located in St. John the Baptist, a parish of less than 43,000 people. At one point, St. John Parish had the highest deaths per capita in the entire country.

Now, the parish is fourth highest in the U.S. for deaths per capita.

“I was concerned that this could happen. I didn’t know it would be to this extent though,” said Dr. Montegut.

KIRAN: How many veterans have died at the Reserve veterans home from the Coronavirus?

STRICKLAND: 16.

KIRAN: I am understanding that the count from the coroner’s office is actually higher. It is currently 19.

STRICKLAND: The coroner apparently has counted some veterans who may have died from COVID-19. We don’t know that they died from COVID-19.

KIRAN: Is everyone being tested?

STRICKLAND: We follow the doctor’s recommendation on testing of our veterans. If the doctor says they should be tested, then they’re tested.

KIRAN: So are all veterans who feel they may have symptoms, are they being tested or not?

STRICKLAND: I guess the best way I can answer that is if the doctor says that they should be tested, then yes, they’re tested.

Because they are in a small parish, the coroner said his office initially only received three coronavirus testing kits. He said he ended up borrowing two more.

As for testing at the veterans home:

KIRAN: You’re saying they’ve been able to resume testing. So did they stop testing for a while?

DR. MONTEGUT: I was informed that they had to stop testing. Their source for testing was not able to supply tests to them because they were limited.

“They were not testing him because he wasn’t showing enough, he didn’t have the severe symptoms and then when I requested later can you test him, then they said, ‘Well, we don’t have the test.’ So, I don’t know which it is,” said Wellons.

Some of the relatives we spoke to also asked if enough was done to isolate patients at the veterans home from the start.

The home cut off the facility to outside visitors on March 12, but over the next few weeks, they publicly posted pictures on the home’s Facebook page showing staff members in very close proximity to veterans as well as some veterans next to each other.

“Strictly my opinion, they didn’t want to raise the statistics as to how many really died in that nursing home from the coronavirus,” said Firmin.

“I can’t help but feel the administration is playing we don’t want to test because we don’t want to report. If we test, then we’re going to have to report,” said Wellons.

“No, I can tell you honestly that is, I have no reason to hide anything at all. That is absolutely not true, absolutely erroneous information,” said Strickland. “We are working seven days a week around the clock to take care of our veterans so I don’t know where you’re getting your information but I can tell you this, it’s not coming up here to me.”

“I don’t blame them for his death,” said Wellons. “We understand. This is a worldwide pandemic. We don’t expect you to control this. What you can control is how you react to it. How open and transparent you are with the family members.”

“This is one of the biggest challenges that I’ve had in my career. I served two years on the battlefield in Vietnam, losing soldiers, and I knew what to do to try to turn the tide of battle but this is an enemy that has no face. This is a pandemic. This is a situation where nobody knows what to do and we’re doing the very, very best that we can in our power to take care of our veterans and keep them alive,” said Strickland.

Mr. Wellons & Mr. Deakles are being counted in the 24 total deaths at the veterans home blamed on the coronavirus.

Both were tested after they died.

A test never was conducted on Mr. Firmin.

As of now, 43 other veterans from that home have tested positive and are being treated for COVID-19.

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