TILTON — In the wake of an unvaccinated staff member contracting the coronavirus, the New Hampshire Veteran’s Home went into partial lock down with 25 residents of Tarr North wing confined to their rooms for roughly a week while they underwent COVID testing. The quarantine lifted at 6:30 am yesterday, according to a resident veteran who contacted this newspaper.
"We're doing the best we can to protect residents in other neighborhoods," said Veterans Home Commandant Margaret LaBrecque. Residents are allowed to be out and about while protected. "We're asking them to wear masks," she said. "We know that (any lockdown) is difficult" for residents who have struggled with long periods of isolation before because of the coronavirus. "If we can do quarantining, COVID testing and contact tracing" then only rooms that are affected would be closed off, under guidelines released Sept. 10 by the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare. The Veteran's Home is governed by rules set by the Veteran's Administration, which is a separate entity.
La Brecque said Wednesday that she is unsure if vaccination will be mandated for all staff in the near future. Currently 68% of the roughly 300 workers at the Veterans Home have received COVID shots. On Friday two other staff who serve a different wing tested positive for the coronavirus and contact tracing has been used to quarantine only those rooms that they served, said LaBrecque.
"Just living our lives out in the community we come in contact with the coronavirus," said LaBrecque. While she said she respects personal choice when it comes to personal health, "I have to protect as many as I can. That's how we move forward" successfully in the Veterans Home environment, she said. Staff wear personal protective equipment that includes goggles and face shields to prevent contagion through exhaled droplets. Close to 99% of the home's 110 residents have been vaccinated. "We wear medical grade masks, goggles and shields so we're protecting them from us," said LaBrecque, who hopes the lock down will be lifted by the middle of next week. It takes one day to disinfect rooms. "It's a fluid situation as always."
The lock down has come at the same time Commandant Margaret LaBrecque has announced that she will be resigning, citing a desire to care for an ailing family member after 16 years of working here as chief officer at the state’s nursing home for military veterans.
In an emailed statement, LaBrecque said, “Being in the healthcare industry, we practice taking care of others on a daily basis. I have thoroughly enjoyed my career of caring for our State’s Veterans and have now made the personal decision to care for a family member in need of my time and attention.”
She said she will remain in her role until a replacement is in place to ensure a smooth transition. The New Hampshire Veterans Home Board of Managers will begin the process of seeking potential candidates to serve as the next Commandant.
Meanwhile, the Veterans Home's response to the virus will evolve with any unfolding situation. “The Legislature has given us the flexibility regarding vaccination mandates if needed in the future. The New Hampshire Veterans Home is constantly looking at the data regarding vaccinations; we continue to consult with healthcare officials to determine the best action. Commandant LaBrecque supports personal choice but also weighs that against the risk to our residents and staff,” Sarah Stanley, public information officer, said by email.
The recent lock down disappointed veterans who were quarantined inside their rooms for roughly a year starting in March 2020, resulting in a drought of interaction and activity they couldn’t wait to end.
Jack Shea, a resident for five years, said returning to living life in his room seemed like unjust imprisonment. “We’re treated like mushrooms, kept in the dark,” said Shea, who contacted the newspaper to express his displeasure. “A week ago today, they locked down the whole northern end of the building.” So far, all residents have received negative results on COVID tests, he said.
“They will disinfect every single room. Then they will free us," said Shea. "This is because a staff member didn’t get vaccinated, and brought COVID in.”