Cambar Edwards spoke of her bosses at a nursing home who told her they had to wear masks to prevent spreading “the active flu” in early March.
She recalled having to argue with supervisors to get masks that would actually prevent the spread of disease. No one had mentioned that COVID-19 was starting to blow through the nursing home until residents started dying around the end of March, she said.
Claire Martin did her best as a home care worker to take care of the elderly client she loved. But her efforts to protect the woman and her own fear of COVID-19 led Martin to a breakdown that included a stay at a psychiatric ward.
MaryBeth Cimino, a certified nursing assistant at a nursing home in Hamden, explained the pain she witnessed as she tried to help a coworker named Francine, who was suffering from COVID-19 which she had inadvertently passed on to her mother who later died from the disease.
Raw and cathartic, their stories and more than a dozen others from those who worked in nursing homes and as home care aides during the pandemic are documented in “Care Under Covid,” a collection of essays written by frontline workers in the New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199 SEIU.
The book was sponsored by the union’s Training and Upgrading Fund, which held workshops for the writers who worked with the publisher, Hardball Press. “Care Under Covid” can be purchased for $10 by emailing Book@1199trainingfund.org.
They care for the state’s most vulnerable residents – the elderly and disabled. But many of the essays speak of employers who they say hoarded personal protective equipment such as masks and gowns and didn’t give staff proper instructions on how to protect their charges and themselves from the spread of the coronavirus which has killed 5,444 state residents as of Monday.
About 60% of the deaths have come from nursing home residents who were in facilities ill-prepared to handle the pandemic, several said.
The union will be staging a rally and vigil on Dec. 22 to draw attention to systemic changes that need to be made to keep nursing home residents safe after the pandemic has passed, said union Secretary Treasurer Suzanne Clark.
“Problems with the long-term care industry didn’t start with the pandemic,” Clark said. She said the problems will continue unless the state provides adequate funding for changes and seeks policy revisions.
There were 21 deaths and nearly every resident was infected at the nursing home where Edwards worked early in the pandemic. Edwards recalled an incident when she asked for the thicker masks that she had been shown only days before and was told they were gone.
Instead she wore two thinner masks, she said. Home administrators “gave orders to be stringent with the PPE supplies and also blamed staff of stealing the masks,” Edwards said. “The staff and residents were being put in harm’s way.”
There came a point early on when no more tests for COVID-19 were allowed – only X-rays, which revealed what the disease had done to the residents’ lungs, Edwards said.
“Many deaths may have been prevented if proper action was taken, proper advice was given, proper training was given, and proper protection was provided in February,” Edwards said. “Human lives were lost because of inefficiency and seeming secrecy by administration and management. I am so sad, so angry and I miss my beloved residents.”
Cimino had a knee replacement in early March and hasn’t been back to work since, she said. She didn’t hesitate to jump in when a coworker named Francine was diagnosed with COVID-19, buying her groceries, including blueberries which what was all the woman wanted, Cimino said.
“Francine had been working on a unit that was ravaged with COVID-19,” Cimino said. “The death count was too high for the residents living there.”
Francine fell while she was at her mother’s house. As she lay on the floor, her mother cradled her head while waiting for an ambulance, Cimino said. Francine was diagnosed with COVID-19 while at the hospital. Her mother tested positive a week later.
The last time that Francine saw her mother alive was that day as she cradled her daughter’s head in her lap, Cimino said.
The book gave Martin an opportunity to become something she always had wanted to become – a published author. It was also an opportunity to process some of the experiences she faced as she sank into depression while caring for her beloved home care client during the pandemic.
They were a good fit, Martin said. They both loved watching “Bewitched,” “The Andy Griffith Show” and “The Golden Girls.”
But as the pandemic ramped up, Martin’s concerns about not spreading the disease to the woman she called “Ellie” in the book began to overtake her days. Her mask would often frighten Ellie, who didn’t understand the public health crisis as she suffered from dementia.
“Coronavirus dictated our new routine,” Martin said. “I would go to work and wash and sanitize my hands until my skin cracked and stung. Every time I went to work my heart felt heavy, as though I were grieving something that hadn’t even happened yet as I went through the motions, performing my tasks with extra caution.”
She stopped sleeping and eventually sought help which included a stay at a psychiatric ward.
“It’s important to take coronavirus very seriously, and to minimize the risk of infection,” Martin said. “But it’s also important to remember good days. And for some, the difference between a good day and a bad day is who you spend it with. And I need to stay alive, because I want to give Ellie as many good days as I can.”