Locked down and lonely at the State Veterans Home


SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The new COVID-19 variant, Omicron, is the latest threat to nursing home residents.

However, tonight our KELOLAND News Investigation, “Locked Down and Lonely” is looking into an even greater threat to the elderly: isolation. Families of residents at the Michael J. Fitzmaurice South Dakota Veterans Home say their loved ones have been put under extreme and unnecessary lockdowns and restrictions that continued well into this fall. Some of the residents’ rights guaranteed by federal law have been violated and exposed the toll extreme lockdowns have taken on veterans and their spouses who live in this state facility in Hot Springs.

The Michael J. Fitzmaurice South Dakota Veterans Home in Hot Springs.

“Her husband, Ken’s father, was in World War II in the Pacific Ocean,” Vivian Couch said.

96-year-old Erdine Couch, the widow of veteran Floyd Couch, has lived at the South Dakota Veterans Home for the last four years.

“And she was doing fairly well before this pandemic hit. She liked to be in her room. She liked to look out the window,” Vivian said.

Erdine uses a wheelchair and has limited sight and hearing. This made virtual visits difficult when all nursing homes went into lockdowns in 2020.

“With her, she can’t hear very well and she can’t see very well and she wasn’t totally sure who she was visiting with,” Ken Couch said.

However, like most families with loved ones in the South Dakota Veterans Home, they believed there would be a light at the end of the tunnel after vaccines became available.

Vivian and Ken Couch go through documents from the State Veterans Home

“And then you get to the point, where let’s get double vaccinated, and then you guys are going to be free. Oh, just kidding, just kidding. That’s not true,” Kim Oberpriller said.

Kim Oberpriller’s 85-year-old father, Darrel Custer, is also a resident at the home.

“Somebody would test positive, oh, we’re locked down for another 14 days. It never ended. The decline in him was very evident,” Oberpriller said.

KELOLAND Investigates obtained letters sent by the South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs to residents and their families in June through the end of October this year. On October 4, three staff members tested positive for COVID-19, causing a prolonged outbreak status. On October 13th, 3 staff members were positive for the virus again, continuing the outbreak status. On October 26th 2 staff members had COVID-19, resulting in outbreak status until November 9th.

“In August, we started having employees get positive COVID. And each time a new employee tested positive, they had a 14-day quarantine in your room. That means you had your meals in your room on a paper plate. And you basically were supposed to stay in your room and not get out and have any social contact. And we couldn’t go visit her at all,” Ken said.

The Veterans Home is made up of six nursing care and two independent living households. There are 13 residents per household and two households share a kitchen and staff; that’s called a neighborhood. When one resident or staff member of a household tests positive, the entire neighborhood goes on lockdown, or quarantine.

“It throws them into depression. It restricts their physical contact with people. I got written up once because I got caught on camera giving a woman a hug who had just lost her husband two weeks ago who had dementia and forgot her husband passed away and she broke down. I gave her a hug and got called into my supervisor’s office and had to sign a form because I broke the contact rule,” Megan Argabright said.

Megan Argabright worked at the State Veterans Home for nearly a year, before recently leaving her position

Megan Argabright worked at the State Veterans Home for nearly a year, before leaving recently to work at another facility. She was a housekeeper during long lockdowns.

“It was heartbreaking to see the conditions that they were in,” Arbabright said.

Argabright provided KELOLAND Investigates with these photos. One shows a resident alone, looking out a window with a urine spill on the floor. Another shows a spill in the bathroom and yet another with black bugs on the floor.

“I want more people to realize what’s happening at the state home. I want our residents there to be treated equally and fairly,” Argabright said.

KELOLAND Investigates also obtained an email from one of the home’s social workers, sent in October to Veterans Home administrators with the subject: “Resident Concerns.” She wrote extended quarantines were taking a psychological toll on the residents, who had expressed the following statements:

“Why don’t they just take us out back and shoot us? It would be better than this.”
“I’d be better off dead.”
“They’re trying to protect us? And apparently drive us insane in the process. “
“Prison is better than this.”

Statements made by residents in the Michael J. Fitzmaurice South Dakota Veterans Home

“I’ve had so many residents look at me (and say), ‘I don’t want to get out of bed. I don’t want to eat. Why don’t you guys just take us outside and shoot us? It would be so much quicker and cheaper,'” Argabright said.

The social worker who wrote the email went on to say, “We may be keeping our residents from disease, but we are not keeping them healthy.”

“We’re human beings. We require physical contact. And these lockdowns are causing so much depression. This is the type of stuff that terrorists pull–locking people in cells and causing isolation causes so many mental issues,” Argabright said.

Teresa Phillipson, the Deputy Superintendent & Director of Operations of the Veterans Home, responded to the email, saying she understood the social worker’s concerns and, ….”it was so disheartening to hear our outbreak status is extended another 2 weeks. Another setback… She points out they were starting “back with outdoor visits” and says, “I will do everything I can to affect a positive change.”

According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), compassionate care visits are allowed regardless of a COVID-19 status because they are intended to offer comfort and care to a resident whose well-being is suffering or at risk, or who is dying.

“Somewhere in the middle there, they changed her to compassionate care and we were supposed to be able to go see her anytime with that. However, once they went to this shutdown, they didn’t let us see her at all,” Ken said.

KELOLAND Investigates examined the latest available inspection report from the South Dakota Department of Health on the South Dakota Veterans Home. On June 24th, an inspector found that the home “failed to ensure compassionate care visits,” and that “Compassionate care visits and visits under the federal disability rights law, should be allowed at all times, regardless of a resident’s vaccination status, the county’s COVID-19 positivity rate, or an outbreak.”

“After the state stepped in and said, ‘No, you’re not following the rules,’ that they evaluated the residents for compassionate care and then we were able to get back on board again to go visit her in her room,” Ken said.

“Isolation from your family was wrong, period. And we need to, so it doesn’t happen again. They need to change their policies and procedures so that we do not restrict them to their rooms only and their family gets to see them, no matter what their virus level is.” Vivian said.

On November 12, New federal guidance informed nursing homes to allow visits at all times for all residents. Facilities will no longer be able to limit the frequency and length of visits or require advanced scheduling. We repeatedly requested an on-camera interview from the South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs to address these issues, but were denied. In an email, a spokesperson said the state veterans home was following all state and federal guidelines and that when it comes to the Department of Health Inspection, a revisit in September from the DOH found the home “achieved and maintained substantial compliance with survey requirements.”

You can read the SD Dept. of Veterans Affairs Response to emailed questions here:

KELOLAND Investigates: Why did you have extended lockdowns/quarantines where residents were confined to their rooms?

Audry Rickets, Public Information Officers, SD Dept. of Veterans Affairs: The Michael J. Fitzmaurice State Veterans Home followed all applicable state and federal guidelines pertaining to COVID precautions and safety measures for long-term care facilities.

KELOLAND Investigates: Did you see this affect the residents negatively? 

Audry Rickets, Public Information Officers, SD Dept. of Veterans Affairs: COVID has impacted everyone. The residents at the Michael J. Fitzmaurice State Veterans Home are no different. Throughout the pandemic, the Home has worked to maintain a sense of normalcy while adhering to COVID precautions and safety measures for long-term care facilities.

KELOLAND Investigates: How do you respond to the SDDOH June inspection findings? What has been done to correct them?

Audry Rickets, Public Information Officers, SD Dept. of Veterans Affairs: The Michael J. Fitzmaurice State Veterans Home takes immediate appropriate actions when notified of deficiencies identified during surveys. The Home received a letter from the Department of Health and Human Services dated September 24, 2021, regarding the June inspection findings and a subsequent September 7, 2021, revisit from the Department of Health stating that the Michael J. Fitzmaurice State Veterans Home achieved and maintained substantial compliance with survey requirements. Therefore, all recommended remedies were rescinded.

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