Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Rob Barall, president of SEIU 1199, with Rep. Michael Winkler, and Chelsea Daniels (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — The union representing 25,000 nursing home workers and home healthcare aides thinks more can be done to protect its workers and patients.

Rob Barall, president of SEIU 1199, said nursing homes have limited visitors, but everyone who walks through the door should be getting their temperature taken.

“We know there are no easy solutions for COVID-19 preparedness, but we want to raise a high bar,” Barall said.

Gov. Ned Lamont issued a new executive order Thursday that modifies visitor restrictions to all nursing and convalescent homes in the state. The order clarifies that the Commissioner of Public Health may issue restrictions on the number, category and frequency of outside visitors and screening and protective measures “necessary to assure the health and welfare of patients in a nursing home facility, residential care home or chronic disease hospital.”

Barall said the state should establish protocols to monitor people’s temperature when folks are coming in and out of public places, such as state healthcare facilities or large places of employment.

David Skoczulek, vice president of business development for iCare Health Network which manages 11 nursing homes in the Hartford area, said they have already begun taking the temperature of everyone who walks through their doors, including employees.

Skoczulek said that includes vendors, contractors, residents and staff. Anyone entering the nursing home will be asked the CDC screening questions.

He said any new patients are being screened using the CDC guidelines

Matthew Barrett, president and CT Association of Health Care Facilities, said it’s understandable that workers have concerns.

“Connecticut nursing homes were working overtime in an unprecedented effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but that it was very reasonable for nursing home operators and employees to be concerned about how the virus might tax a workforce that’s already understaffed and an industry that is chronically underfunded.”

Nursing homes have no access to coronavirus test kits, which may become available soon to four hospitals in the state. The test kits the state has at the moment are reserved for patients who have been hospitalized.

The state lab has tested 95 individuals: six have tested positive while 89 have tested negative.

Chelsea Daniels, a nurse at Fresh River in East Windsor, said there are fewer people entering the building these days and everyone is getting their temperature taken, including staff.

“We have no way of knowing whether someone has been exposed to COVID-19 or not,” Daniels said. “This virus can take many days to show symptoms and we are in constant contact with many people.”

She said visitors have been limited, but they are still accepting new patients to their facility.

“Nursing homes are receiving some communication from the Department of Social Services,” Barall said. However, he said there has been no communication to the 10,000 home healthcare workers who deliver services to the elderly and disabled population in their own home.

“We’re working together with nursing home operators to make sure nursing home services are preserved,” Barall said.

Daniels said she worries about what happens if schools close. She said she has three children and will have to make a choice between caring for them and caring for the residents where she works.

“The residents depend on us 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We don’t close,” Daniels said. “We have children who need care as well.”

Barrett didn’t disagree.

If “school systems around the state will continue to close, then Connecticut nursing homes will be in a crisis to staff their facilities when workers are home caring for children in addition to sick workers being unavailable to care for Connecticut’s 23,000 nursing home residents. It’s a critical issue that is of immediate concern.”

Barall said they also don’t want employers disciplining their employees if they have to stay at home with their young children because schools are closed.

He said he’s hoping the state will take nursing home and home healthcare workers into consideration when they are developing their plans.

He said if workers exhaust their paid leave they are going to have to make tough choices in terms of being able to provide for themselves and their families.

“Many nursing home workers, home care workers, group home workers have multiple jobs,” Barall said.