It was almost Memorial Day, and retired Army Sgt. Bill Meck was thinking about the dead. It had been nearly a year since covid-19 had hollowed out Charlotte Hall Veterans Home — the state-run facility for veterans and their spouses where he lived. Before the pandemic, he could usually expect to honor a resident who had recently died. Taps would be played. An American flag would cover the body as it lay on a gurney. Employees and residents could line the hallway and sidewalk for a final salute. “With all of this, none of the guys have gotten that,” Bill said. The pandemic halted so much.
For most of 2020, Charlotte Hall was the site of the largest and deadliest coronavirus outbreak at a Maryland long-term-care facility. It remains the second-deadliest outbreak at a long-term-care facility in the state, and among the largest outbreaks in the country. So far, 66 residents and one staff member have died, and there have been 411 infections.
Among the dead were veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. They were Army and Navy and Marines, fathers and husbands and brothers, recipients of the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. Some had made a career of the military. Others had served for a few years. In their post-military life, their work varied: a machinist, a bus driver, a federal employee. Many of them had come to Charlotte Hall for the subsidized care it provided, a deep discount from private nursing homes whose costs their families could not afford.
Bill had lived at Charlotte Hall for about a decade, and in two other nursing homes before that. He knew the good and the bad of long-term care, that being close to death was part of it. But not like this. Near the height of the home’s outbreak, when its infection rate reached 50 percent and dozens of people had died in a matter of weeks, he asked to speak to a mental health professional. “I have been through a lot of s— in my life, and that’s the first time I talked to a shrink,” he said. They met over Skype from the room where he was isolated.
Bill had not served during wartime, but the battle metaphors still came easy. “One of the other guys, he’s a combat vet. He said it’s like going out on patrol, getting ambushed, and you’re the only one that survived. And you spend the rest of your life asking why.”
Charlotte Hall was not alone in its struggles. Across the country, state veterans homes were among the most dangerous long-term-care facilities during the pandemic. More than 145 veterans died in two homes in New Jersey. One hundred and twenty-one at a New York …….