‘To give a voice’: Lawmaker drafts resolution for COVID-19 care in Louisiana nursing homes

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BATON ROUGE, La. (WVLA/WGMB) — Kennard Wellons fought in the Air Force during the Korean War. In April, the 86-year-old succumbed to a different battle — COVID-19.

Wellons was among the two-dozen-plus residents who died of the novel coronavirus this spring at a veterans home in St. John the Baptist Parish. His son, Brad Wellons, recalls a fight worsened by testing backlogs — and by his father’s bout with Alzheimer’s disease.

“For people with Alzheimer’s, one of the toughest things to do is make a phone call,” he said. “They can’t.”

More than a third of Louisiana’s reported coronavirus cases come from longterm care centers, many of them involving residents with cognitive challenges. A resolution from state Rep. Matthew Willard, advanced by a House panel Tuesday, would direct the state’s health and veterans affairs departments to “implement policies for the health and safety of longterm care facility residents.”

“They were doing the best job that they could at that time,” Willard said. “What we do now is learn from that situation.”

When it comes to testing and isolating residents, the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) and the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs (LDVA) would have to provide guidelines that fit federal recommendations. Both residents and staff would require tests — regardless of whether they are showing virus symptoms — and these facilities would have to report positive cases within a day of getting the test result.

The legislation would also ensure families can call or videoconference with patients facing Alzheimer’s or dementia.

The policies proposed would only stay in place as long as LDH and LDVA accept state and federal funding to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, the resolution states.

“I would say the only better time to deal with this resolution would be yesterday,” Willard said.

Many longterm care centers have since begun frequent testing and treatment routines. The Southeast Louisiana Veterans Home in St. John the Baptist Parish has since started testing all residents and staff members, regardless of whether they are feeling virus symptoms. In crafting his resolution, Willard consulted with LDH, the Louisiana Nursing Home Association and the Alzheimer’s Association.

Brad Wellons holds no bitterness for how his father died. But he says Willard’s resolution would only improve how longterm care facilities handle residents moving forward.

“That’s why I’m here, to give a voice to those people who aren’t able to,” said Brad, noting his father’s Ph.D. in gerontology — the study of aging — from the University of California, Berkeley. “He would want me to be doing this, and he would be on the front lines doing this himself.”

The legislation heads to the state House floor, pending a fiscal note. State lawmakers have until June 30 to pass it.

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