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How COVID-19 changes Memorial Day for Utah veterans

(People visiting loved ones at Wasatch Lawn Memorial Park over Memorial Day weekend 2019. Credit: Silas Walker, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY – Things will feel extremely different for veterans this Memorial Day weekend thanks to COVID-19 and the public safety restrictions in Utah that come with it.  Veterans advocates say they’re doing what they can to make sure vets are still honored and stay healthy while the virus spreads.

Usually, officials with the Utah Department of Veterans and Military Affairs would be adding their final touches to their Memorial Day ceremony at the Veterans Cemetery near Camp Williams by now.  Of course, that’s not going to happen, this year.

Executive Director Gary Harter says, “That’s very unfortunate.  We’ve had great speakers and great attendance, but, more than not, we’ve had people who come to honor and to recognize all those who served and are no longer with us.”

However, Harter says the ceremony isn’t completely gone.  They’re turning to technology, like so many agencies are doing now, to hold a virtual ceremony which is expected to be released later in the week.  The ceremonies they have in their nursing homes will be virtual, and sadly, something will be missing because of COVID-19 restrictions.

“We will not be able to have the family members and other community members who typically come into our homes to honor our veterans.  They will not be able to be there,” he says.

Harter says both their department and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have worked to make sure they have the resources they need to treat veterans, whether they have coronavirus or anything else.

He says. “We all try to look at it from many different ways on the employment side, on the health care side and on the camaraderie side.”

Luckily, there hasn’t been nearly as large of a surge in veterans with COVID-19 as some officials expected.  So, over the next ten days or so, the VA Hospital in Salt Lake will be reopening for face-to-face visits.

“We limited out face to face patients 100 percent unless it was an urgent or emergent situation and we had to see them,” according to VA Rocky Mountain Region Director of Communications Jill Atwood

She says the hospital in Salt Lake has everything it needs, from triage tents, to negative pressure rooms and they even turned some outpatient clinics into inpatient clinics.  However, she says they’re just as worried about another surge of patients in the near future that don’t have COVID-19.

“What we expect to see and what’s possible, with the downturn of the economy, the loss of jobs and the loss of health insurance is many more veterans coming to the VA,” she says.

Atwood says they’ve already seen a three to four percent increase in the number of people enrolling in their health care system since October, well before the outbreak began.  They encourage this enrollment, especially to the vets who may be too humble to ask for help.

“They always feel like, ‘Oh, I don’t need it.  I want to leave it to the veterans who need it more,” she says.