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Bluffdale • Dallas Lynn Stevens’ casket had small U.S. flag decals on its sides. The color guard from Hill Air Force Base carried his remains and the coffin to their final resting place here Wednesday at the Utah Veterans Cemetery.
Stevens served 38 years in the Utah Air National Guard. When it was time to read Stevens’ obituary, his daughter, Geeta Fyffe, included a thank you to the place where her dad spent his final years, the William E. Christoffersen Veterans Home in Salt Lake City.
“They have done more to help us get through this difficult time than they know,” Fyffe said, “despite what the media or others may say.”
The 83-year-old Stevens was one of 13 residents of the veterans home to die in the recent coronavirus outbreak at the facility. In interviews, some family members of the deceased had questions about how the virus entered and spread through the facility despite the ban on visitors and other protocols to stop infections, but no one who spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune could point to errors, nor did anyone cast blame upon the center.
The families all say their loved ones received good care before the outbreak.
“I don’t know how much better you can be than having a total lockdown, how much tighter,” said Bob Williams, whose brother, Jerry E. Williams, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War, died June 7 at age 69. “So I don’t attach any blame to them. It’s just one of those things.”
That doesn’t mean Williams isn’t curious about how his brother’s infection happened. He and at least one member of another family favor an inquiry into what happened at the veterans home — similar to the investigation conducted in Massachusetts after COVID-19 killed at least 76 residents of a state-run veterans home there.
Others, however, don’t believe an investigation — with a published report — of the outbreak at the Salt Lake City veterans home is necessary.
“It would be a waste of money,” said Jody Chidester, whose father, Jerry E. Chidester, died June 17 at age 95. “I think those [veterans home employees] did everything they could do.”
Screening and testing
As of Saturday, 194 long-term care facilities in Utah have had at least one resident or staffer test positive for the coronavirus, and 70 of the state’s 167 deaths have been linked to such care centers, according to the Utah Department of Health.
Although it is owned by the Utah Department of Veterans and Military Affairs, the Christoffersen home sits on the same campus as the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Foothill Drive. The state contracts with Avalon Health Care Group to operate the facility, as well as three other state-owned veterans homes — in Ogden, Payson and Ivins.
Neither Avalon nor the state has disclosed a full roster of those who died, citing privacy laws. The Department of Veterans and Military Affairs did disclose one name — the home’s namesake, William Christoffersen.
A World War II Army soldier who returned to Utah to hold national posts with the American Legion and advocate for veterans, Christoffersen died May 31 at age 93. The Tribune confirmed the identity of nine other fatalities through obituaries and social media posts.
Known COVID-19 deaths from veterans home
• William Christoffersen, 93, died May 31.
• Lorin Jay Thompson, 89, died June 1.
• Robert A. Sumbot, 90, died June 6.
• Jerry E. Williams, 69, died June 7.
• Joseph William Ingram, 86, died June 9.
• Ralph N. Shino, 97, died June 9.
• Milton D. Anderson, 95, died June 10.
• Jerry E. Chidester, 95, died June 17.
• Dallas Lynn Stevens, 83, died June 19.
• Ralph Crockett, 77, died June 20.
Source: Obituaries, Salt Lake Tribune reporting
In all, 51 residents have tested positive for COVID-19 since May 18, according to news releases from Avalon, and 29 staffers have tested positive since May 20.
Kelsey Price, a spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Veterans and Military Affairs, said Saturday that 19 patients are now considered recovered. Five others have tested negative for the virus once. A second test is needed to confirm they no longer have COVID-19.
The Christoffersen home has 81 beds spread across two floors. On the lower floor is the memory care unit. Other residents live on the upper floor — or the ground floor, since it’s the one with the main entrance where visitors arrive.
Jeff Hanson, deputy director of the Utah Department of Veterans and Military Affairs, said Thursday the first coronavirus cases appeared on the ground floor. Later, a few cases showed up in the memory care unit.
Hanson said neither the department nor Avalon knows how the virus entered the facility, though the assumption is an asymptomatic worker was a carrier. Even before the outbreak, employees were screened for symptoms before starting their shifts.
But screening, including checking temperatures and asking the workers how they feel, is not as effective as regular testing.
“We screen, we screen, and we screen,” Hanson said, “but if they don’t have any symptoms, it’s hard to know” if workers are infected.
The Christoffersen home has an “above average” overall rating from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Its health measures were rated as “average.”
A December 2019 report from the federal agency found an above average number of health citations. However, only one — kitchen staff not wearing hairnets, not changing gloves after touching dirty dishes and reusing plate covers without washing them — appears to be related to infection control. Hanson said the Utah Department of Health conducted an infection control survey at the veterans home earlier this month and found no deficiencies.
Veterans home staffers worked hard to keep the infection away — painfully so, says Tresha Kramer. For eight years, she went to the veterans home two or three times a week to visit her father, Lorin Jay Thompson, who served in the Army during the Korean War and then was a fixture at a family sporting goods store in Richfield. There was a Latter-day Saint worship service at the veterans home every Sunday; Kramer was one of the teachers.
When the coronavirus struck Utah in March and the visits stopped, Kramer lost those in-person contacts with her father and the other veterans she got to know. Kramer said her dad had mild dementia and sometimes didn’t understand the pandemic. She would talk to him on the phone every night, and he would often ask when she was coming.
“That, for me, is just something I’ve not been able to come to terms with,” Kramer said, “not being able to hug him.”
Kramer is among those family members who would back an inquiry into the outbreak at the veterans home, partly because she’s unclear when her father contracted COVID-19. Kramer, who has kept the correspondence and voicemails she received from the home’s staff, said she received a message May 22 — Thompson’s 89th birthday — saying he tested negative.
She didn’t notice a voicemail message two days later from an employee saying to call. A staffer phoned the next morning and broke the news: Her father had COVID-19. He had been taken to the neighboring VA hospital, where he died June 1.
A nurse from the veterans home sent Kramer a condolence note. The daughter read it at Thompson’s funeral.
“He was really loved there,” Kramer said. “He was really loved by the staff.”
Other families also struggled with the isolation inflicted by the pandemic.
Jerry Chidester was a machinist aboard the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga during World War II.
Jody Chidester — who along with his brother later served with their father when they were all in the Utah Air National Guard — said his dad compared being separated from his family to nights aboard the Saratoga, where he would sit and watch the propellers churn the water below and think of home.
“The worst part was not being able to see us,” Jody Chidester said. “I think you die of heartache.”
Like at any nursing home, the residents had health problems before the pandemic arrived.
Ralph Crockett, who served in the Army during the Vietnam War and then returned to Utah to be a deputy Salt Lake County attorney and a criminal defense lawyer, had Parkinson’s disease, said his wife, Suzanne Crockett.
A fall in May left him with a head injury. He then tested positive for the virus and eventually contracted a fever.
“That probably weakened him enough,” his widow said, “that he died [June 20 at age 77] from Parkinson’s and COVID-19.”
‘Did their best’
Troy Stevens, a son of Dallas Stevens, said staffers “did their best.” He said the employees would arrange video calls so Stevens’ father could see his family’s faces.
“How on earth do you blame somebody when they have no symptoms and they show up to work?” Troy Stevens said of the outbreak. “I could have spread the virus like that at a grocery store.”
Hanson said there are no plans for an external review of what transpired at the Christoffersen center and no plans to reconsider Avalon’s contract to run any of Utah’s veterans homes. There have been no coronavirus cases in the state’s three other veterans homes.
Gary Harter — executive director of the Utah Department of Veterans and Military Affairs and a retired Army colonel — issued a news release Saturday mourning the loss of the 13 residents, celebrating those who have recovered and thanking the staffers who have cared for everyone in the veterans home.
“Lastly,” Harter said, “we know this battle will continue for our department, Avalon Health Care, our residents and their families in the months ahead. It is clear this virus disproportionately affects and harms those most vulnerable among us, particularly residents at long-term care facilities like our veterans homes.”
In the same news release, Avalon Health Care said that, “while a single lost life is one too many, there is also reason for optimism. This is highlighted by the fact that 19 residents of the Salt Lake veterans home have now recovered from COVID-19. This is not only a testament to their strength and bravery, but to the caregivers who continue to stand by their side.”
Dallas Stevens spent most of his 38 years in the Air National Guard as a boom operator on a KC-135 refueling jet. He deployed to Vietnam and the first Persian Gulf War. He retired as a master sergeant.
That’s the same rank son Christopher Stevens now holds with the Utah Air National Guard. It was Christopher who took the folded flag that had been atop his father’s casket and handed it to his mother.
About 60 mourners watched, most of them in masks.