West Haven resident Michael Whelan has four aides, including Roberts, come to his home every day to help with all his needs including bathing and meal preparation.
The box, which was sent out by the agency to limit the spread of COVID-19, contained only one pair of gloves, 15 masks and a six-page document that gave conflicting information on how they should be used, Roberts said.
“This is crazy, they are playing a game with our lives,” she said.
It’s no secret that throughout the state and the world, health workers and governments have been scrambling to access an adequate amount of gloves, masks, gowns and face shields to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has killed more than 2,800 people in Connecticut alone.
But union officials said the shortage has been acute in Connecticut for the 7,000 home care workers who provide daily care to 4,000 DSS clients who otherwise would not be able to remain in their communities.
The state’s various home care programs are run through a patchwork of agencies and providers including DSS. Clients are supposed to provide any PPE needed for their care but for some it’s too expensive and for others it’s impossible to find, workers and union officials said.
“We had one case where a client was symptomatic and the aide was using the same mask for a month because they had no other PPE,” said Diedre Murch, home care director for New England Health Care Workers Union, District 1199 which represents the bulk of the 7,000 home care workers with DSS clients. “The worker is now hospitalized with COVID-19.”
The client has passed away and a second home care worker is ill, Murch said. “We heard the state received 100,000 gloves but it’s not going to help anyone unless they are in people’s hands,” she said.
Ivon Rivera, a 51-year-old Ansonia resident with diabetes and other health issues that require her to be on oxygen, waited outside her home for 90 minutes on May 4 for a DSS shipment of PPE that never came.
Her two aides have been wearing cloth masks that were donated, said Angel Hawes, one of her home care workers. “I can’t use one pair of gloves to clean her bathroom and wash her dishes,” Hawes said.
Rivera spent time in a nursing home, but doesn’t want to go back. She received a letter April 29 from DSS stating that if she became sick she would be provided with masks and gloves by the agency. “I don’t understand why do you have to wait?” she said.
The documents that came with the one pair of gloves and 15 masks for Roberts’ client started out with old information issued by DSS on March 31 indicating that clients and home care workers should only wear masks if they are sick.
“One way to be prepared is to have personal protective equipment on hand for you and your staff — just in the rare case you need it,” the first page tells clients.
By page six, the paperwork gives more recent advice, telling personal care assistants to always wear gloves and a mask when dealing with clients. “Since gloves are in short supply, you may need to use them again,” the document said. The documents also gave instructions on how to wash the gloves and hang them to dry and to store the mask in a clean paper bag with a name on it.
“I thought the letter was a joke,” Roberts said.
DSS sent out PPE to 4,000 Medicaid participants who hire their own personal care assistants, said David Dearborn, spokesperson for the agency. For the week of April 27, DSS coordinated the distribution of 100,000 masks and 12,000 pairs of gloves, Dearborn said.
“DSS has consistently advocated for PPE distribution to personal care assistants, and we are coordinating increased distributions with our partners as these supplies become available to us,” Dearborn said.
“I’m his first line of defense,” Roberts said of her West Haven client, noting he has three other aides as well. “I’m supposed to use one pair of gloves to bathe him, take him to the bathroom and fix his food?” she said. “That’s like being in a restaurant and I’m just going to touch all the beef, pork and chicken and then touch the vegetables you are going to eat raw.”
Roberts said her other client in Woodbridge received three pairs of gloves and about 25 masks, she said. It’s still not enough to clean the woman’s house, even though her work with the client doesn’t require as much close contact, she said.
Hawes is concerned about Rivera — but she’s also concerned about herself. She has asthma and is pre-diabetic.
“I feel like they (DSS) don’t care about us,” Rivera said. “Not only me as the client, but also my aides.”
Written by Lisa Backus