Veterans Saw Friends Die From COVID. Then It Got Worse.
At least 47 people in a long-term VA care facility in New Jersey died from coronavirus. Employees and residents describe a lockdown that never ended—and the mental toll it took.
First the coronavirus spread inside the Lyons, New Jersey, long-term Veterans Affairs facility and ravaged residents and staff. Then came what workers and veterans described as indifference and neglect from Lyons administrators as the bodies piled up and the lockdown dragged on. But to them, the worst part, the part that is ongoing nine months into the COVID-19 outbreak in America, has been watching people who need help and dignity, long after serving their country, give up.
“They were lonely, not being able to see their families. Seeing the guys die around them was terrible,” said an employee at the Lyons community living center. “You’d be leaving work on Friday, coming back Monday and finding guys missing. A lot of guys. You’d think they’d be all right. You’d see them looking weak. They’d stop eating. And they’d pass.”
Now the employee has another worry. “I’m scared as hell to see the second wave come,” he said after another day of work at a VA facility that has functioned for much of 2020 as a sarcophagus, entombing both the dead and the living.
As described by two workers who requested anonymity out of fear for their jobs, and a resident, Lyons provides a disturbing window into what happens when coronavirus runs through a place where America houses its veterans who need long-term care. At least 171 people at Lyons, according to Sen. Cory Booker, contracted the virus by the spring. And at least 47 staff and residents have died from it. The VA directed The Daily Beast to a data summary that did not specify COVID-19 numbers at Lyons but reported 1,196 cases and 122 deaths between its East Orange and Lyons campuses.
Workers say that at the start of the pandemic, they were told extremely little about communicability risks and the extent of the virus inside Lyons, something the VA disputed.
“They never once asked me what my symptoms were, never once, while they were shoving guys who were positive into their rooms and letting them die,” resident Lee Siegfried, a Gulf War veteran who said he contracted the coronavirus at Lyons, told The Daily Beast.
A representative for New Jersey operations at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Christine Betros Farrell, said that an extensive list of questions from The Daily Beast “indicate[s] a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of coronavirus, how it spreads and how it is treated.”
“During the pandemic, VA New Jersey Health Care System (VANJHCS) employees have provided life-saving care, testing and treating more than 1156 Veterans seeking care related to COVID while adhering to safety practices that have limited its current COVID employee infection rate to 0.9 percent,” she said in a statement. “Additionally, VA has provided critical support to non-VA patients and health care systems throughout the state of New Jersey, earning repeated praise and thanks from Gov. Phil Murphy.”
The dead at Lyons are among the nearly 4,700 veterans who have died from COVID-19 around the country in 2020, a figure that surpasses the U.S. troop death toll in the nine-year occupation of Iraq, and twice that of the U.S. troop death toll in the 19-year Afghanistan war. As with the wars themselves, and as with veterans’ health needs more broadly, America has rarely shown the attention span to reckon with what has happened in places like Lyons this year.
Months after Lyons registered its last COVID-positive resident or staff member, the facility kept those who live there on lockdown, part of a national VA policy to limit the spread of the virus within community living centers like Lyons.
“VANJHCS CLC is currently not open for visitation to keep its residents safe. These policies are working because there is only one COVID positive Lyons Community Living Center (CLC) employee and two positive Veterans,” Farrell said in the VA statement. “To keep our residents connected with friends and family, we have arranged nearly 415 video-visits and 86 window-visits.”
But that isolation has taken an awful emotional toll on both workers and residents.
Siegfried—who is a former radio DJ and frequent Howard Stern guest also known as “Crazy Cabbie” Lee Mroszak—described his body deteriorating, his teeth rotting out and his medications being insufficient at Lyons, all while the loneliness takes his spirit away.
There were “no visits, no doctor’s appointments, no dentist appointments, and zero information on when any of this would end,” said Siegfried. “We are humans, for God’s sake.”
At Lyons, death yielded but neglect didn’t, the workers and employees claimed. Now, some fear that the result will be death this winter, for those who served their country and those who serve them.
The two employees told the Daily Beast that Lyons took no more care with its staff than it did with its veterans. There wasn’t a mask mandate until around May, they said. One wished for mental-health counseling after witnessing so much death. Another observed that the staff’s suffering merged with that of the Lyons veterans.
“A lot of the veterans’ support system was eradicated because of the virus. Someone from physical therapy, recreation workers and so on, all that just vanished and nothing was put into place,” that Lyons employee said.
In June, Sen. Booker (D-NJ) sounded an alarm over Lyons in a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie that described a litany of concerns from both patients and staff.
“Employees at the Lyons VA Medical Center have also reported that access to PPE, masks and hand sanitizer in particular, is inconsistent,” Booker wrote. “According to one employee who contacted my office, access to PPE is limited–forcing front line healthcare workers to privately store away used masks, gloves, or gowns to reuse the next day in case the facility does not provide PPE again.”
One of the employees who spoke to The Daily Beast told a slightly different but aligned story: Lyons officials instructed them to recycle P95 respirators. “They didn’t want to give us masks. They told us to reuse them and turn them in after so they could recycle them and shit,” the employee said. “It’s how these guys make their money anyway, by shorting us.” Another employee said that during the spring, staffers, seeing no support from Lyons, purchased their own painters’ respirators.
When The Daily Beast asked whether Lyons recycled masks amongst employees, the VA’s Farrell said that “employees have never had to share masks” and said a mandate to use masks went into effect on March 24, “prior to CDC guidance recommending such procedures in the health care setting.”
Siegfried considers it all a waking nightmare that has lasted almost all of 2020.
Siegfried suffers from GBS-CIPD, a rare nerve disorder that can result in paralysis. After an initial stay at Lyons in 2017, his illness prompted him to move into the facility full time in January. Siegfried said that he obsessed over early accounts of the rise of the novel coronavirus in China and warned staff that the virus would inevitably make its way to America. But he considered the nurses and the administrators to be indifferent, with some even dismissing the lockdowns that began in March—to the point where staff brought the virus into Lyons itself, where it found no shortage of elderly and infirm hosts.
Spring in Lyons was a fearful time. Confined to their rooms, patients could only roam as far as the hallways. It meant that each time waving at a friend in the hall could be the last. “I’d see these people in the hallway and when I’d go out later, they were gone,” Siegfried said.
Siegfried himself caught coronavirus, he said, though he considered it a mild case. So did one of the Lyons employees who spoke with The Daily Beast. “Man, I was out of it,” the employee said. He stayed home, overcame the virus, and came back to work. Lyons was still recycling face masks.
Coronavirus cases at Lyons subsided by June, the sources indicated. But the lockdown has never ended. It was a precautionary measure. It might have even saved lives. But enduring it has been “horrible,” Siegfried said.
Siegfried doesn’t share the employee’s fear that the coronavirus will re-invade Lyons. He considers the post-spring lockdown too intense. But there has been a hidden cost to what he considers a belated response: the psychological toll of being shunted inside a space for over half a year, maddeningly close and yet impossibly distant from dozens of others who experienced the deaths of dozens of their neighbors, and unable to see family and friends.
Siegfried’s world shrank. He would get his normal medication—that, at least, was never interrupted—and his meals delivered into his room. He can venture into the hallway, using his motorized wheelchair, but not to the gym for physical therapy. That has to be performed in his room, as best he could. His wife sends him care packages and phone calls. Seeing him in person is not allowed.
Both Siegfried and the employees said the consistent lack of information was infuriating. “For a veteran, for a soldier, for anyone who’s been to combat, information is key. It’s a human need: What’s the future? You’re clinging on to any kind of knowledge. And—nothing. No end in sight,” he said.
The VA’s Farrell said accounts of insufficient information on the virus were “false.”
“Since March, VANJHCS leadership has completed 34 weekly COVID update calls, with over 500 employees participating. Additionally, an internal COVID share point site was established for employees to obtain important information, ask questions to the leadership team and receive answers in real time. Members of the leadership team also conduct weekly rounds in the CLC on each unit,” she said.
Siegfried and the two employees doubted that Lyons is currently taking the mental-health implications of the extended lockdown seriously enough. “For the veterans it’s very frustrating. You can see how someone is pissed off and feels neglected,” said one of the employees.
It’s no easier for the families locked out than their loved ones locked in. “I want to go see my husband,” said Siegfried’s wife, Tara Pepitone. “I don’t know of any relatives support group. They’ve never reached out to me with anything, never gotten anything in the mail.”
Even if the coronavirus returns to Lyons, Siegfried has made his peace. His fears are for the older veterans, as well as for the next generation of veterans that the Forever Wars are creating, since this is unlikely to be the last pandemic of their lifetimes.
“Maybe they should have offered us some counseling or something. All it was is, we showed up, did what we were supposed to do, and they sent us home,” said one of the employees. “They could have offered us some psychological help.”
The VA’s Farrell disputed that as well.
“Interdisciplinary teams, including social workers, nursing, medical providers, nutrition and food staff, and recreational therapists continue to find creative ways to keep our residents engaged,” she said. “There is also a presence of full time mental health professionals in the CLC to address any mental health concerns, and VANJ leadership has a ground presence at the CLC to address any concerns, provide moral support and, to effectively communicate with our CLC residents and the staff.”
More than halfway through fall 2020, the pandemic has killed 260,000 Americans. An agonizing winter beckons. Siegfried suggested that the survivors will soon be acquainted with a phenomenon all too familiar to the nation’s veterans.
“America is going to have to deal with PTSD,” he said. “It’s something that has never hit the American public like it’s hit the veterans.”