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VA workers die of COVID-19, questions linger about how they were infected

Updated July 11, 2020 - 7:45 am

When the new coronavirus killed Bruce McAllister on March 28, he became the first victim of the disease in Washoe County and one of the first in Nevada.

Within weeks, two colleagues of the 47-year-old U.S. Army veteran at the Veterans Affairs system in Reno also were dead from COVID-19.

One, nurse Vianna Thompson, a 52-year-old Army veteran, had cared for McAllister while he was in the intensive care unit at the Northern Nevada Medical Center, according to a coworker.

Thompson, who was working two jobs at the time — one at the privately run Northern Nevada hospital and the other as a night nurse in the emergency department at VA Hospital in Reno — died a little over a week after McAllister.

Two days later, the virus killed Russian immigrant Alexander Gousev, 57, himself a veteran of the Russian army who worked for VA in the Community Care Service building, where McAllister also worked.

But while it’s known that the three veterans’ paths crossed in the last month of their lives, public health authorities still don’t know if any of them contracted the disease from one of the others.

The Washoe County Health District “did extensive contact tracing for the entire office” where Gousev and McAllister worked, a nonclinical facility separate from the VA hospital, said Heather Kerwin, epidemiology program manager.

The investigation showed that McAllister had traveled to New York and became ill shortly after. No other contact with known patients was mentioned.

Thompson’s death was traced to her being “exposed to a person who was confirmed to have COVID-19 at the other health care facility,” but the report makes no connection to McAllister.

McCallister is believed to have been “patient zero” at the Community Care Service building, but it was not clear if Gousev was exposed to the virus there, Kerwin said.

The VA system in Reno declined to discuss the investigation into the deaths of the staff members or say if any contact among the trio had been documented.

As of late Friday, a national VA database reported that the Reno facility has had 82 cases of COVID-19, with 15 patients and two employees still with active cases, 41 patients and 11 staff members recovered and 10 deaths. The site provides no breakdown on whether the fatalities involved patients or staff.

In a ceremony Friday outside Reno’s VA Hospital, three memorial markers were dedicated to McAllister, Thompson and Gousev.

“Public service is noble and something to be proud of. There is no greater gift that that of oneself,” said Lisa Howard, director of the VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System. “We’ve seen incredible acts of heroism and selfless service from our first responders … and we know their hearts are heavy today.”

A few hundred family members, friends and staff paid their respects, and nearly 5,000 people watched a livestream of the ceremony on Facebook.

McAllister’s memorial describes him as a “Veteran & Patriot” who is “Forever Faithful.”

Thompson’s reads “Veteran & Patriot” and “Nurse Extraordinaire.”

Gousev, “Veteran & Patriot,” is remembered with a phrase he used many times: “Adventure Awaits.”

Here are their stories.

‘Always tried to do the best for us’

McAllister became sick in late March, coming down with a 103-degree fever. He also had Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder, and had his thyroid surgically removed years earlier.

But on the day he was admitted to the hospital, he was worried about his wife, Lana, who has lupus. He drove her to the emergency room March 23.

They would later find out they both had COVID-19.

“Check him,” Lana McAllister recalled telling hospital staff when they walked in for treatment.

They did, and it was the last time she saw him alive.

McAllister and his wife were married for nearly six years after he moved from New York to court her. In December, his son from a previous relationship, 10-year-old Bryce, came to live with them in Sparks.

McAllister had visited New York and returned to work March 18, where he helped veterans sign up for benefits. Soon after he developed a cough but attributed it to the air conditioning in his office.

By March 24, however, the couple learned that they had come down with the disease. They were each given the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine by staff at the Northern Nevada Medical Center, his wife said.

McAllister told his wife, who had been released from the hospital, that he was feeling better. His temperature went down, but he complained that the oxygen machine’s beeping kept him up all night.

“He sounded better,” she said. “I told him I loved him and I would keep in contact with the nurses to make sure everything was OK.”

That night, he was put on a ventilator.

On March 27, his fever spiked again. By the next day, the hospital told Lana McAllister her husband had coded and was being resuscitated. He died hours later.

Lana McAllister went to the hospital afterward, a short trip she describes as the hardest of her life.

“Walking into the hospital to get his belongings and see him broke me beyond repair,” she told the Review-Journal this month.

His son, Bryce, said he remembered his dad as a loving, caring person who had season tickets to the San Francisco 49ers and often brought his son.

“He always stood up for me no matter what. He always tried to do the best for us. He always worked hard,” Bryce McAllister said, adding that his father was adventurous, funny and caring.

“I never got to say goodbye,” Lana McAllister added.

“The virus stole him from me. It stole a dad from Bryce. It stole a son from his mom. It stole a brother from his sister. It stole family from all of us.”

‘God is getting one hell of a nurse’

Vianna Thompson had cared for McAllister at Northern Nevada Medical Center. She told a coworker at the VA and friend, Robyn Underhill, early on about treating critical patients at her other job and mentioned that one was a fellow VA employee.

Thompson had been a nurse for more than 26 years and worked with Underhill for several years.

The mom of three boys — Joshua, Justin and Jonathan — was a hard worker, constantly logging overtime despite working two jobs.

“They were her pride and joy, everything she did was for them,” Underhill said.

Thompson, who had asthma as an underlying health issue, started feeling sick at work in early April, fighting a fever and shortness of breath.

She went home that day and later learned she had tested positive for COVID-19.

Days later, she was taken to the VA, where she had spent years caring for patients, and was immediately sedated and put on a ventilator.

Her family members were told that she wouldn’t live through the weekend. Thompson proved that forecast wrong but died on April 7, a Tuesday.

“It’s kind of surreal, and the last couple of months have been rough,” Underhill said. “It’s hard going in there knowing she’s not going to be there.”

During the night shift, Thompson went out of her way to put a smile on people’s faces. Last year on Halloween staff dressed up as the seven dwarfs. Thompson was “Dopey.”

The two would often finish each other’s sentences, Underhill said, and Thompson would burst out in song when one of her favorites came over the radio.

The day she died, she had a FaceTime conversation with her husband, Bob, and her sons.

Her son, Joshua, a Nevada Highway Patrol trooper, sang the national anthem at the memorial Friday.

Bob Thompson said he met his wife in 1991 on the Osan Air Base in South Korea, where he served as an inventory management specialist in the Air Force and she was a veterinary technician in the Army, caring for military police dogs.

The couple had hit it off all those years ago over country music and two-step dancing, he recalled.

As a veteran, Vianna Thompson qualified for an “honor flight,” a ceremony where the patient’s body is covered in a black box draped with the American flag as it is wheeled through the hospital.

Because of the coronavirus, that could not be done, so someone walked in front of her with a flag as staff members lined up and saluted her. But at Friday’s memorial, Bob Thompson said he was sure that despite her death, his wife’s work was not yet done.

“God is getting one hell of a nurse up there,” he said.

Knack for making people smile

Alex Gousev, or Sasha as his family knew him, was born in Moscow and came to the U.S. to live the American dream. He was otherwise healthy at the time of his death, family members said.

After serving two years in the Russian army, Gousev worked as a juggler in the Moscow Circus before immigrating to the U.S. to work for Circus Circus in Reno, where he met his wife, Mary.

In 2007, he started work at the VA, first working in laboratory services, and would make people laugh as he drew their blood. He even encouraged some patients to learn Russian, his coworker Justin Dunaway shared Friday at the memorial.

Much to Gousev’s amusement, he was often referred to around campus as the “Russian George Clooney.”

Gousev’s son, Alexander Jr., said his father’s best attribute was his love of God and his family, adding that “he always knew how to put a smile on somebody’s face.”

Seeking church community, Alexander Gousev in 2000 helped found the Holy New Martyrs of Russia Orthodox Church, where he served as a deacon.

His son told the Review-Journal his favorite memories with his dad were the trips they took to Moscow to visit family and go ice skating. He loved seeing where his dad grew up.

Back home, they went to baseball games, went fishing and took bike rides.

“He went to the United States to live the American dream, and the church really helped him when he got here and has been a huge part of his life ever since,” the younger Gousev said.

“And he loved talking to his patients and hearing all the stories they had to tell.”

Gousev’s son said the family was saddened to hear about the passing of the two other VA employees and the grief they are feeling.

“In regards to the memorial, (my dad) spent a lot of time working there and impacted so many lives in the best way possible,” he said.

“Now his legacy will be there forever.”

The Review-Journal wants to tell the stories of those who have died due to the coronavirus. Help us by submitting names of friends or family, or email us at covidstories@reviewjournal.com.

Contact Briana Erickson at berickson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5244. Follow @ByBrianaE on Twitter.

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