Courtesy of SEIU 1199
Nursing home worker in a garbage gown (Courtesy of SEIU 1199)

HARTFORD, CT — A union representing nursing home workers said there’s still a shortage of personal protective equipment, but the state says there’s only a small number of homes with an urgent need for PPE.

Barbara Cass, the nurse with the Department of Public Health who oversees nursing home inspections, said if the nursing home workers are wearing garbage bags that’s their “preference.”

“We, too, have heard the stories and have followed up on the trash bag,” she said. “And in … all of the cases thus far, that has been the preference of the employee. It has not been supported by the employer, but that’s what they felt comfortable with doing.”

The union representing the nursing home workers said it’s not anyone’s preference to wear a garbage bag.

“We still have caregivers who are using black hefty trash bags,” SEIU Healthcare 1199 President Rob Baril said. “Our nursing home caregivers are not trash.”

“The idea that workers ‘prefer’ to wear trash bags instead of personal protective equipment is outrageous and insulting to the real heroes of this crisis – frontline caregivers,” Baril said. “Our members, unfortunately, are put in positions where they have no choice but to use trash bags as personal protective equipment. They and those they care for are not trash and should not be treated as such.”

Baril added that “statements about nursing home workers voluntarily wearing trash bags devalues them as working-class black, brown, and white caregivers in Connecticut.”

Gov. Ned Lamont said the workers can go back and forth and place blame,” but I’m here to solve problems. I’m in charge of the health and public welfare of all the people of Connecticut, including the folks who work in our nursing homes.”

Lamont said they have scoured the globe for PPE and have been in contact with the nursing homes to ensure they have everything they need.

Josh Geballe, Gov. Ned Lamont’s chief operating officer, said there were only two complaints about workers using garbage bags in nursing homes.

“It’s completely unacceptable in a healthcare environment,” Geballe added.

He said “we don’t have any evidence that this is a widespread practice and in both cases the investigation yielded that that was the employees choice and that there were gowns available in that facility.”

He said it could have been an issue of training.

He said it’s not a “best practice” of infection control to wear a garbage bag when a gown is available.

Of the 1,764 COVID-19 associated deaths, 768 have been in nursing homes, Geballe said. That comes to about 43% of the state’s total fatalities associated with coronavirus.

Baril said more than 1,000 union members have either tested positive for COVID-19 or have been quarantined for showing symptoms.

The nursing home statistics won’t be released until later Friday night.

Nicole Jefferson, a nurses aide at Apple Rehabilitation of Rocky Hill, said all they are asking for is proper PPE to protect themselves and their residents.

“It’s very scary to know you’re showing up to work every day and to perform your duty effectively and we’re not able to get proper PPE,” Jefferson said in a Zoom organized by SEIU 1199.

She said they don’t feel safe taking breaks or using the restroom because they are given only one “johnny” for their whole shift. A johnny is a hospital gown, which doesn’t necessarily protect against the virus, but it adds a small layer of protection.

Cass said they are concerned when they hear complaints about PPE.

She said they are following up when they receive complaints about hoarding by nursing home administrators or a lack of PPE for staff. She said either with a phone call or FaceTime where they ask the administrator to walk down to the supply of PPE to show them.

She said when they visit the nursing homes they will look at purchase orders for the PPE. She said they field about 50 to 60 phone calls a day from providers concerned about their supplies of PPE.

“It’s important for us to do a deep dive to ensure there is PPE,” Cass said. “PPE is essential in controlling the incidents of this infection.”

She said any nursing home that doesn’t have enough PPE is able to access the state supply, which is distributed once a week at specific regional locations.

Cass declined to say how many nursing home violations for infection control or a lack of PPE they’ve found over the past few weeks.

She said the last she looked at least 137 of the 215 nursing homes in the state had at least one patient with COVID-19 in their home. The new numbers of infections and deaths at nursing homes won’t be released until late Friday night.

“We have not found any buildings yet that has had insufficient or inadequate staffing,” Cass said.

Every morning now at 8 a.m. nursing homes and assisted living facilities will receive an activation message that they need to start reporting on the number of cases and deaths. By 10:30 the reporting period ends and every home that has not called will receive a phone call from the state.

Cass said the new $5,000 fine for failure to report will prompt homes to report their numbers in a timely manner.