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A box of face masks at the state storage facility in New Britain (ctnewsjunkie file photo)

Lisa Vincenzi, who works at Regalcare of Torrington, was stunned when she was told by the National Guard that she was wearing an incorrect mask.

“A member of the National Guard looked at me and said that I would be better off wearing a surgical mask,” Vincenzi said.

Vincenzi was at work Wednesday when Department of Public Health inspectors along with members of the National Guard arrived. She was wearing a KN95 mask and a face shield. She had been wearing the mask for over a week.

An undated DPH memo says that “KN95s should be used as surgical masks. A gown, gloves, and eye protection should be worn in addition while caring for patients with suspected or confirmed COVID-19. KN95s are not to be used for aerosol-generating procedures.”

Any PPE is still hard to come by, according to Vincenzi.

“We don’t have enough,” she said. “Most of us are wearing it for at least a week. When we wear a paper gown, we’re told to tape it. They tell the staff to go and ask if we need more but when you ask they say we don’t have it.”

A National Guard member looked at her and pointed out that she would be better off wearing a surgical mask when dealing with COVID-19 patients. “I wanted to cry,” Vincenzi said.

She had already been out of work for 18 days because she had contracted COVID-19, she said. “Now I find out that I pretty much have been in jeopardy since I went back to work,” she said.

RegalCare of Torrington Administrator Keisha Trowers said the DPH found no problem with the mask Vincenzi was wearing because she was also wearing a face shield.

“We didn’t give it to her,” Trowers said of the KN95 mask. “The DPH said she had the right mask because she had a face shield to cover it.”

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Face shields at the storage facility in New Britain (ctnewsjunkie file photo)

DPH spokesperson Av Harris confirmed there were workers wearing KN95s and face shields during a recent inspection. Harris said late Thursday that the state allocates approximately 50%-60% of its total PPE supply to nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and residential care homes.

Gov. Ned Lamont announced Tuesday that the state had received its largest shipment of personal protective equipment yet to battle COVID-19 including 6 million surgical masks, 500,000 surgical masks, 100,000 surgical gowns and 100,000 temporal thermometers.

But union officials representing thousands of nursing home health care workers are still contending that supplies are scarce in some homes – a fact they say the DPH has failed to address.

“We’ve told them about dozens of individual circumstances where workers have not had adequate protection,” said Rob Baril, President of the New England Healthcare Workers Union, District 1199 SEIU representing about 7,000 workers in 68 of the state’s 215 nursing homes. “The DPH has yet to issue one single fine to any skilled nursing home in the state despite more than 1,500 deaths of nursing home residents.”

Harris said that disciplinary action against nursing homes will be announced in a matter of days.

The union rallied on the steps of the Capitol Wednesday afternoon to draw attention to the situation, which has escalated in recent weeks even as Lamont and his office maintain that supplies of PPE are adequate.

Baril and others are demanding the DPH take action as nursing home residents, union members and their family members are dying of COVID-19. which they said is a direct result of shoddy or non-existent PPE.

“There is no accountability for failing to keep an adequate stock,” Baril said.

Six union members and nine family members of union members have died as the pandemic has raged through nursing homes across the state. As of Thursday, of the 163 of the state’s 215 nursing homes have at least one COVID-19-related death, according to state data. Nursing home residents make up 1,927 or 60% of the state’s 3,219 deaths from COVID-19.

The hardest-hit homes include Riverside Health and Rehabilitation Center in East Hartford with 54 deaths, Kimberly Hall North in Windsor with 43 deaths and Abbott Terrace Health Center in Waterbury with 41 deaths. RegalCare in Torrington had 8 deaths, state figures show.

Baril and District 1199 Communications Director Pedro Zayas allege that nursing home administrators and state officials aren’t taking the crisis seriously because the workforce in the home is predominantly black and Hispanic women who work for low wages.

“These workers are disrespected,” Zayas said. “This is why people are dying.”

Lamont said Wednesday that nursing home administrators are responsible for making sure their facilities are stocked with adequate PPE and the state will act as a backup.
“There is no excuse for the frontline workers not to get the PPE they deserve,” Lamont said.

Zayas agreed that providing adequate PPE is the responsibility of the nursing home.

“But it’s also the duty of the Department of Public Health to hold the homes accountable to meet those PPE standards,” Zayas said. “So far, we know that more than 1,500 nursing home residents have passed away but the state still hasn’t issued information on inspections.”

The state did issue some inspection information Thursday. The reports on five homes — Shady Knoll in Seymour, New London Sub-Acute and Nursing, Orange Health Care Center, Whispering Pines Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in East Haven, and Aaron Manor Nursing & Rehabilitation in Chester— showed a variety of problems including lack of infection control practices, proper use of PPE and lack of isolation practices for residents with COVID-19. A sixth report pointed out that Golden Hill Rehab Pavilion failed to notify a conservator of a change in the condition of a patient. The DPH did not specify if any fines were issued or indicate how many reports have been completed.

The DPH began inspecting homes a few weeks ago as deaths from nursing homes began tallying into the hundreds. A contingent from the National Guard was brought in to help.

The state also said this week they will begin weekly testing of all nursing home residents and workers.