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Oxford’s State Veterans Home hosts Operation Family Reunion event

After 13 months without family or friends walking through the front door, Oxford’s State Veterans Home welcomed them back with open arms this week.

The Mississippi State Veterans Association (MSVA) held its Operation Family Reunion event at the Oxford campus on Thursday, as family members were able to physically see and hug their loved ones after more than a year of being kept apart due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March of last year, all of the veterans homes and all long-term care facilities across the state were locked down and closed to outside visitors to help keep the novel coronavirus from infecting and spreading to the residents. On Thursday, it was the first time families did not have to see their loved ones while looking through a window.

“It’s a celebration, culmination and anything else you can think of when you’re talking about reuniting these families,” said Ray Coleman, director of communications for MSVA. “It’s been a long time, over a year, that these families have been able to engage the way that they will be able to today. We’ve done our best to provide visitation through technology with Facetime, Skype and things like that. But, that doesn’t equate to physical contact.”

For Brad Wilbanks, Thursday was the culmination of more than 400 days without getting to see his father, Kenneth Wilbanks, who served in the Army. Wilbanks moved his father into Oxford’s veterans home a couple weeks ago from Savannah, Tenn. The relocation was supposed to happen last spring, right when the pandemic hit the United States, and the MSVA halted new admission into their four homes.

Brad would make the near four-hour drive from Memphis to Savannah to visit with his father, who has suffered four strokes over the past three years. Having his father in Oxford, cutting the commute by nearly three hours, and the ability to physically sit with him at the same table made Thursday twice the gift for Wilbanks.

“It’s been a while since we’ve been able to sit down and spend an hour or two and not have to go nowhere,” Wilbanks said. “Since COVID, we’ve been talking through a glass. Driving three hours, talking through a glass for maybe 10 minutes, turning around and driving three hours home. I had been doing that for 431 trips to Savannah from Memphis.”

Coleman said the MSVA was nervous about the event when going through the planning process, knowing how potentially dangerous it could be if not done the correct way. They took into account all guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and the Mississippi State Department of Health, he said.

All visitors were screened and administered COVID-19 tests. Those who had been vaccinated were able to visit with their loved one without their masks on at the table.

Prior to opening up Oxford’s veterans home for visitors, MSVA held similar reunion events at the Jackson, Kosciusko and Collins veterans homes.

Two months ago, all of the state veterans homes began the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. According to Coleman, there is a 90-percent rate of residents who are vaccinated throughout all four homes. In Oxford’s home, nearly 80 percent of the residents chose to receive the vaccine, along with 75 to 80 percent of the staff.

“Those are the numbers you want to see and because of those numbers, we’re able to do this event today,” Coleman said. “We couldn’t do it if we had low numbers of vaccinations on either side. So, it’s one of those things that we know is trending in the right direction, not just in the homes, but in the community and statewide.”

While many families were able to reunite with their loved ones on Thursday, many other families did not have that option. Oxford’s home suffered three different outbreaks during 2020, including one in July that resulted in 26 deaths.

Coleman acknowledged that all four of the state’s veterans homes suffered from a high number of COVID-related deaths. About a month ago, Coleman also said there were still new COVID cases being reported in the homes, but since they started the reunion events, there have not been new cases.

“We lost close to 90 veterans throughout the entire pandemic, and that hurts,” Coleman said. “We saw an explosion of COVID cases, not just in our residents, but our staff. Since we’ve done our vaccinations, those numbers have trended down greatly. We have not seen more than three in a single home.

Following this week’s reunion event, Coleman said they will shutdown the home for a week which is part of the process to ensure no new COVID cases arise. After the week-long lockdown, visitors will be able to come every day.

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