On April 8, 2020, a severe COVID-19 outbreak at the Spokane Veterans Home results in the first of many deaths. The deceased was a resident who had been on end-of-life care before contracting the coronavirus. He was one of only two residents who had tested positive for the virus as of April 8. However, a health care aide at the facility had tested positive more than a week earlier, and the virus had apparently been spreading undetected. By April 12, the number of cases has grown to 12. By April 15, cases spike to 21 -- 19 residents and two employees -- making it the largest cluster of COVID-19 cases in Spokane County. On April 21, a second resident dies, and more cases and deaths follow. By May 17, 46 residents out of a total of 86 have tested positive, along with 24 employees. Dozens of infected residents are sent to Spokane hospitals, including the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center, for treatment. By May 19, the death count reaches 10, accounting for one-third of the total COVID-19 deaths in Spokane County at the time.
First Signs of an Outbreak
The Spokane Veterans Home is a nursing facility at 222 E Fifth Avenue, near downtown Spokane. It is run by the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs, which is a separate agency from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. It is a 100-bed facility, and it had 86 residents at the time the outbreak began.
The first sign of a problem came on March 20, when a healthcare aide at the Spokane Veterans Home began exhibiting flulike symptoms. The aide was tested on March 23. At this early stage in the national outbreak, it still took many days for test results to come back. While awaiting results, the aide's symptoms subsided and the aide was allowed to come back to work on March 27 and March 30. A spokesman for the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs later said that permission to return was based on the then-current federal guidance which suggested that it was safe to do so.
"The facility focused on their knowledge that the individual had no known exposure to an individual who had tested positive, symptoms had been resolved for 72 hours, and seven days had passed since symptoms first appeared," said the spokesman ("Caregiver Tested Positive").
However, later in the day on March 30, the aide's test results came back positive. The aide was sent home at once and into self-quarantine. The home immediately instituted a number of precautions: temperature checks every four hours, face masks for all staff members tending to residents, and cleaning and sanitizing of areas where the aide had worked. There were still no positive COVID-19 test results for any of the 86 residents of the home, yet family members of residents were already expressing alarm about the situation, because COVID-19 had already proven to spread rapidly and lethally in nursing homes.
On April 7, 2020, came another ominous sign. Two residents of the home tested positive. The next day came worse news: One of those veterans had died. His name, age and underlying conditions were not made public, but he had been on end-of-life care for some time at the home before he contracted COVID-19. Also, he had received care from that aide a little more than a week earlier. The Spokane Regional Health District announced that it was working with the Spokane Veterans Home to ensure proper infection controls were in place and that residents who had been in contact with anyone with the disease were properly isolated.
This was only the beginning of a steady drumbeat of bad news from the facility. By April 10, five more residents tested positive. By April 12, the total was 12. On April 21, the total reached 25, along with six workers. The Spokane Veterans Home now had the largest cluster of confirmed positive cases in Spokane County.
Death Toll Mounts
On April 22, officials announced the second COVID-19 death connected with the home. The resident was one of four seriously ill residents who had been sent to one of Spokane's hospitals the previous weekend. On May 2, officials announced a third death, a resident who had been transferred to the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane earlier in the week because of the severity of the case. On that day, the number of positive cases connected with the Spokane Veterans Home had risen to 61, encompassing 19 employees and 42 residents
The Spokane Veterans Home was certainly not alone in its struggle. As of early May, 252 long-term care facilities in Washington had reported COVID-19 cases. Nor was it the hardest hit -- the Life Care Center of Kirkland had reported 43 deaths by this time and several other homes around the state had deaths in the double digits.
Yet throughout May, the toll continued to mount at the Spokane Veterans Home. Two more deaths connected with the home were announced on May 7; another on May 8; two more on May 12; and another on May 15, bringing the total to nine. On May 20 came the report of No. 10: a veteran who had tested positive, appeared to recover, but who subsequently died because the toll it took on his overall health "was simply too great," according to a Spokane Veterans Home administrator ("Local Veteran Dies").
Officials did not release the names of any of the deceased residents, but the family of one veteran, Eldon Walton, 90, told The Spokesman Review that Walton died on May 8. He and his wife Lois Walton had both lived at the Spokane Veterans Home and had both tested positive for COVID-19. They had been transferred together to the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center, where he died holding his wife's hand. "He was 90 years old and he had some health issues, but I think he probably could have gone a few more years," said their son ("The Man With the French Horn").
These outcomes were being repeated by the thousands throughout the U.S. In late May, federal agencies reported that, nationwide, almost 26,000 nursing home residents had died of COVID-19, along with 450 staffers.
As of May 24, 2020, the case count at the Spokane Veterans home stood at 70, including 46 residents and 24 staff members. The death toll stood at 10, and the outbreak finally appeared to be waning. Many of the residents were returning to the Spokane Veterans Home from the VA hospital. First they went into a COVID-19 recovery wing for two weeks. Then they would be allowed to return to their regular rooms, rejoining the now sadly diminished resident population.
Next: A meatpacking plant in Wallula shuts down because of a deadly COVID-19 outbreak on April 23, 2020.