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As Covid-Positive Nursing Homes Launch, Connecticut Workers Say They Need More Support

The Sharon Health Care Center
Courtesy: Athena Health Care Systems
The Sharon Health Care Center

New state data shows that COVID-19 is present in more than half of the state’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities, some of which are experiencing higher rates of infection and death than others.

Despite early prevention protocols of hand washing, hygiene, symptom screenings, and visitor restrictions, 375 residents have died after contracting the virus – nearly 40% of all state deaths from the disease outbreak. 

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“The death rate is stunning and staggering, but consistent with what the science and the medical community have warned all along, that this is a deadly and pernicious and highly contagious virus,” Matthew Barrett, president and CEO of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, said Friday on Connecticut Public Radio’s Where We Live.

"Regrettably, it’s hitting us hard, and while we plan for the worst and hope for a better outcome, we’re in a battle,” he said.

After weeks of negotiations between state officials and nursing home operators, a small number of facilities — a combination of existing and vacant nursing homes — have been designated to accept residents infected with COVID-19. The goal is to separate ill people from those who are still healthy.

Sharon Health Care Center in Sharon was among the first to recently accept those patients. Northbridge Health and Northbridge Health Care Center in Bridgeport, as well as two vacant facilities – Westfield Care & Rehab Center in Meriden and Torrington Health & Rehab in Torrington — are also expected to be online soon.

“These COVID recovery centers are just an extension of that very important strategy to prevent all infectious disease spread,” Barrett said.

But leaders of nursing home worker unions say low wages, a lack of personal protective equipment, and inadequate staffing levels are concerns among employees, especially when it comes to these new 'COVID-only' facilities.

“Folks are going into nursing home work really because they love the vocation of caring for the elderly and for folks who can no longer take care of themselves,” said Rob Baril, president of union SEIU 1199. “And as a society right now, we’re asking for unbelievable sacrifices from nursing home workers, all health care workers in general.”

Among those sacrifices, Baril said, are deadly outcomes among workers. Two union members died after becoming ill with COVID-19. Among them was Angeline Bernadel, a licensed practical nurse at West River Healthcare in Milford. She was 52 years old.  

Rhoda Lawrence, a unionized licensed practical nurse at Bidwell Health Care Center in Manchester, said workers are often reusing the same gowns and masks for as long as a week, doing their best to sanitize the protective gear at the end of their shifts. She described it as a scary situation for everyone.

“Without proper PPE [personal protective equipment], we are unable to keep our residents safe and it’s very heartbreaking for the families as well,” she said Friday on Where We Live.

Getting these front-line workers better protective gear, pay and support are among the highest priorities, Baril said. He added that these workers need to be assured that their medical costs are covered if and when they, or family members, get COVID-19 because of their line of work.

Barrett agreed that more needed to be done for workers staffing nursing homes, including the new COVID-positive facilities. He said while the state provided some early financial backing, it’s going to take more in order to increase wages, buy more supplies and keep everyone safe.

“I can report that there’s good progress on that, and I’m hoping that package of financial relief that is going to be satisfactory and get us through this disaster is going to be on the way soon,” Barrett said.

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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