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Connecticut Nursing Home Workers On Coronavirus: 'We Need A Better Plan In Place'

Chelsea Daniels, a licensed practical nurse at Fresh River Healthcare in East Windsor and member of health care union SEIU 1199, says she's concerned about how nursing homes will prevention coronavirus infection. Thurs., March 12, 2020.
Nicole Leonard
Connecticut Public Radio
Chelsea Daniels, a licensed practical nurse at Fresh River Healthcare in East Windsor and member of health care union SEIU 1199, says she's concerned about how nursing homes will prevention coronavirus infection. Thurs., March 12, 2020.

Adalis Martinez isn’t eating out as much these days. She also doesn’t spend too much time in stores. And she’s washing her hands — a lot.

“When I go to the store and come out, I’m washing my hands even in my car, so that I don’t touch anything,” she said. “It’s very concerning.” 

Martinez has been taking precautions ever since learning of the global outbreak of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 illness. The outbreak was recently declared a worldwide pandemic, and the virus is now spreading in the United States.

But Martinez isn’t just worried about her own health. She fears how this will impact the patients and residents she cares for as a certified nursing assistant at Avery Heights, a skilled nursing facility in Hartford.

“I’m trying to keep safe so that when I got to work, I don’t bring anything back to work, because my concern is the patients,” she said. “They’re older than me, so I need to keep them safe.”

Older adults and seniors are more at risk of suffering serious illness, hospitalization and deadly complications from coronavirus. It has put pressure on Connecticut nursing homes, which have historically been understaffed and underfunded, and their abilities to prevent infection within their walls.

“We’ve seen that in places like Washington State where at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, nursing homes can be just very dangerous vectors for transmission of COVID-19,” said Rob Baril, president of workers union SEIU 1199.

More than 20 deaths have been linked to the Life Care Center, prompting federal investigators to look into inspection reports and infection-control measures.

In Connecticut, 145 out of the state’s 217 nursing homes were cited for infection-control violations between 2017 and 2019, according to an analysis by the Connecticut Health I-Team of data from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

A Kaiser Health News report found that nationally, violations were more common at facilities with fewer nurses and aides. They included incidents of employees failing to wash their hands between patient care, and not putting on gloves, masks or gowns when seeing contagious patients in isolation.

Baril said shortages of protective supplies at Connecticut facilities during a coronavirus outbreak would put both patients and workers in jeopardy.

It’s a problem that Martinez has already brought up to her superiors.

“Yesterday I said, ‘what if we ran out of gloves?’ You know, we need the masks, but we need gloves, too,” she said. “And they were like, ‘well, we’re going to somehow get some.’”

Union officials, nursing home operators and workers were unable to put a number on the current supplies of protective gear at facilities as of Thursday.

But David Skoczulek, spokesman for the iCare Health Network of 11 homes in the Greater Harford area, said they are being cautious about how supplies are being used, preparing for an increased demand going forward as the virus infects more people.

“From our perspective, we’re trying to sort of ration it in an appropriate way,” Skoczulek said. “We’re also trying to put orders into our vendors to say, ‘hey, this is a priority for us.’ This is a priority for everybody in the country, but we don’t want to not make that request.”

Nursing home operators said they are following preparedness guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as directives from the state.

Earlier this week, the state Department of Public Health told nursing homes and care facilities to limit visitors primarily to family and friends of dying patients.

Gov. Ned Lamont revised that policy Thursday in an executive order, which states that “at least one family member, domestic partner, or other person designated by the patient” can visit per day as long as protective measures are taken to reduce the risk of disease infection.

Matthew Barrett, president and CEO of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities and Connecticut Center for Assisted Living, said this new policy could be a step in the wrong direction.

“The severe restrictions on visitation — all efforts to prevent the virus from entering Connecticut nursing facilities — could be undermined,” he said, “and that nursing home residents may very well experience greater exposure to the virus under the relaxation of the restrictions announced today."

Skoczulek hopes nursing homes are eventually able to test for coronavirus on site. In the meantime, he said iCare homes and facilities have set up checkpoints to take the temperature of anyone entering a facility.

“So no one is entering the care center without that being done, and it’s being done every single time they enter the care center,” he said.

Despite these preventative measures, Baril said nursing homes are likely to encounter staffing issues as school districts shut down across the state.

“We want to make sure that the state is doing everything possible to make sure there are funds available so that health care workers in particular are not having to make choices between staying with their children and showing up at work to make sure they continue to have money coming in so that they can pay their rent, pay for food and pay for other bills,” he said.

Chelsea Daniels, a licensed practical nurse at Fresh River Healthcare in East Windsor, said for now, workers are getting the supplies they need and instructions on how to handle possible exposure to coronavirus. But the situation continues to change rapidly.  

“I feel everyone is taking it day by day,” she said. “We don’t have all the answers right now, and I think everybody is working diligently to do what they can to keep us safe, but we need a better plan in place. We need to have stability and a peace of mind.”

For state updates, visit ct.gov/coronavirus and Connecticut Public’s resource page. For general questions, residents can call the 24-hour state hotline at 2-1-1.

Nicole Leonard joined Connecticut Public Radio to cover health care after several years of reporting for newspapers. In her native state of New Jersey, she covered medical and behavioral health care, as well as arts and culture, for The Press of Atlantic City. Her work on stories about domestic violence and childhood food insecurity won awards from the New Jersey Press Association.

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