CLAREMORE, Okla. — Heartbreak for families of loved ones at the Claremore Veterans Center.
The center's COVID-19 outbreak keeps growing with 129 residents now testing positive and 36 dying from coronavirus. 61 staff members also tested positive. 33 staff members and 11 residents have recovered.
Due to the pandemic, it had been months since Renee Hale last saw her father, Army veteran Kenneth L. Lewis.
“March 2 was the last time I saw him," Hale said.
She got a call in mid-July from the Claremore Veterans Center where Lewis lived, saying he was pretty sick. Soon, he was taken to St. John Medical center in Tulsa, where she said she was told he tested positive for COVID-19. Hale called the veterans center, asking questions.
“How many people have had COVID?" she said. "How many staff have tested positive? What have you been doing to protect him? And they wouldn’t answer those questions.”
Lewis only got worse and Hale was still unable to see him.
He was transferred to the Muskogee Veterans Hospital on July 29. The next day, Hale was told to visit. She got to hold his hand and talk to him for 15 minutes, saying goodbye.
“I tried to explain what was happening," Hale said. "He squeezed my hand. I don’t know if that was voluntary or involuntary, but I want to think that it was voluntary and that he was telling me it was okay.”
She got the call on the way home that her father passed away, shortly before his 86th birthday.
He’s one of 36 residents from the Claremore Veterans Center who contracted the coronavirus and died from complications. Half of the residents now testing positive.
The outbreak hits close to home for president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, Dr. George Monks, who is a veteran himself. He’s now calling on Gov. Kevin Stitt to issue a statewide mask mandate.
"I think Gov. Stitt could really show strong leadership if he put a state face mask mandate in place," Monks said. “Right now, we really need to get these coronavirus numbers down as much as possible so that we can protect our citizens. We can protect these veterans. We can protect our teachers. We can protect our students. And keep businesses open.”
The Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs said it’s following all of the CDC guidelines, has strict procedures for staff, and is getting additional staff and resources from the federal veterans centers to help out in Claremore.
Joel Kintsel, executive director of ODVA, said there is some good news. There’s been one new positive resident case in the past six days.
“We have been doing everything we know to do scientifically to control infections and to deal with the situation in the center," Kintsel said.
Hale said communication with the center was great until her father’s last few weeks. Now, she wants answers.
“I hope there’s an investigation," she said. "And someone tries to figure out how it got to be so widespread.”
ODVA previously said it believed the outbreak stemmed from an asymptomatic employee.
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