The president of the local union that represents nursing home workers said the state has treated them as if they “were invisible” as the deaths mounted in facilities across the state and that new laws are needed to protect them if the coronavirus were to return.
During a conference call to discuss possible legislation that would help members of SEIU 1999, union president Rob Baril said at least 14 workers have died and others have lost family members who got sick because they brought the virus home.
“The workers on this call knew what they were going into, they understood the risks that they were taking,” Baril said his voice cracking. “What they didn’t agree to do was to be treated as if their lives didn’t matter.”
Max Reiss, a spokesman for Gov. Ned Lamont, said that the state Department of Public Health and Barbara Cass, who leads the Healthcare Quality & Safety Branch, have “unquestionably helped to save lives during this pandemic.”
“She has worked directly with labor and the nursing home industry on PPE distributions, and she has inspected numerous facilities to ensure loved ones are safe,” Reiss said. “Barbara Cass was instrumental in the development of the nationally recognized COVID recovery center program. Connecticut is fortunate to have Barbara Cass helping guide the state’s decision-making during this public health crisis.”
When asked about the independent study that Gov. Lamont has ordered into why so many have died in the state’s 231 nursing homes, Baril said the union hasn’t been consulted enough.
“We are of course insisting that frontline caregivers who provide the hands on care, the people who see the crisis, the illness, the suffering, the people who have no financial interest in protecting bottom lines over human lives that their voices be valued,” Baril said.
“We are here talking about these issues because they have been treated as if they are invisible by the Department of Public Health and I believe if the state had done a more aggressive job in making sure there was more accountability not in June, not in May not in April but in March, which is when we began to report on the catastrophe that was taking place in some of the skilled nursing facilities in particular … there would be people who would be with us today who are not with us.”
At this press briefing on Tuesday Gov. Lamont pointed to the independent study where the state will hire an outside consultant to look closely at how nursing homes responded to COVID-19. “Some had zero infections some had very very high infection rates and fatalities. We want to make sure that we get it right if there is a second surge going forward.”
“Are there penalties and consequences? Absolutely some of these nursing homes have been fined already.”
The union’s “bill of rights” lists 10 items that they hope the legislature will address. Several lawmakers including state Sen. Marty Looney, D-New Haven, and state Sen, Bob Duff, D-Stamford and House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, were on the call and pledged their support.
The list includes ensuring that there is enough personal protective equipment available, increased pay for those who work with COVID patients, paid sick leave, support for child care, and protection for whistleblowers.
“Workers need to be treated as experts, we cannot take the word of state officials or administrators or CEOs over the word of first line of care givers,” Baril said. “Too many instances where direct care workers were reporting there wasn’t enough PPE and again and again there was no accountability by DPH or operators.”
As of last Wednesday there had been 2,648 deaths in long-term care facilities or about 63 percent of the total COVID-19 deaths in the state. There have been at least another 360 people who have died in assisted living facilities.
At least six facilities have had more than 40 deaths. Some nursing home providers were critical of the state’s response to the virus at the beginning, saying that they were too slow to implement COVID recovery centers that would have helped handle patients leaving hospitals who were still recovering from the virus.
Governor Ned Lamont has ordered a full investigation of what happened in nursing homes. The state is going to hire an independent firm to review the last three months and determine what was done wrong, what could have be done to save lives and what needs to be done going forward if the virus returns.
During the conference call Looney, who is the Senate Majority Leader, promised the legislature will look at the union’s plight and their suggestions.
“We need to be ready three months from now better than we were three months ago,” Looney said.
Written by Dave Altimari