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Lawsuit alleges veterans at Pa. nursing home were abandoned during first COVID-19 wave

The Southeastern Veterans Center in Spring City, Pa.

BONNIE JO MOUNT/THE WASHINGTON POST

By WILLIAM BENDER | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: December 21, 2020

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PHILADELPHIA (Tribune News Service) — The families of five Southeastern Veterans' Center residents who died of COVID-19 filed a lawsuit in federal court Monday alleging that the operators of the state-run nursing home in Chester County failed to protect them and dozens of other residents who succumbed to the virus.

The lawsuit names as defendants the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMVA), which runs the state's six nursing homes for veterans, as well as former SEVC commandant Rohan Blackwood and his director of nursing, Deborah Mullane.

Blackwood and Mullane were suspended in May following reports in The Inquirer, citing internal documents, on the high number of coronavirus deaths at the East Vincent Township nursing home — as many as four a day.

"The residents of Southeastern Veterans' Center ... dedicated their lives to protect this nation," the plaintiffs' lawyer Robert Daley said in a statement. "When it came time to protect these veterans and their spouses, Southeastern Veterans' Center failed to take the necessary precautions regarding the COVID-19 outbreak, and as a result, the brave men and women at the facility were left vulnerable and unprotected."

None of the defendants responded Monday to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Gov. Tom Wolf's administration declined to comment.

The lawsuit, which seeks damages for wrongful death, negligence, and civil rights violations, alleges that SEVC officials failed to follow guidelines to slow the spread of the coronavirus, such as social distancing and quarantining infected residents.

Staffers have told The Inquirer that, for weeks, supervisors had discouraged nurses and aides from wearing masks to avoid frightening residents. At least 42 residents later died of COVID-19.

Residents and their families were not initially informed of how widely the virus had spread throughout the 238-bed facility, or that anyone had died of COVID-19. The lawsuit claims the nursing home also misled some families about the health conditions of their loved ones.

Relatives of Paul Ferko, for instance, said they were initially relieved to see him waving from the window during a drive-by visit on April 21. But an aide later told Ferko's daughter that despite what other employees had said, he was not doing better.

" Mr. Ferko's daughters found out shortly after the visit that three SEVC employees were holding Mr. Ferko upright and manipulating his arm to wave at [his daughter] Mrs. Ferko-Diaz because Mr. Ferko was severely ill and was too weak to move his own body," the suit states. "These actions are reprehensible."

Ferko died a week later at Phoenixville Hospital.

A July report by state and federal health inspectors found that the nursing home had placed residents in "immediate jeopardy" by flouting infection-control guidelines. They also described a work culture under Blackwood in which staffers could not report problems for fear of being fired.

This month, Wolf's top military affairs official, Maj. Gen. Anthony Carrelli, whose responsibilities included running the state's nursing homes for veterans and their spouses, abruptly retired. No explanation was provided.

Wolf's Office of General Counsel hired an outside firm in May to investigate how SEVC officials and the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs responded to the coronavirus pandemic. The report has not yet been released.

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