Mandatory coronavirus testing for workers brings new challenge for ravaged nursing homes

6.8.2020


Health care workers wave during a cheer line set up to honor employees at Bishop Wicke nursing home on
Long Hill Ave in Shelton, Conn., on Thursday May 14, 2020.
Photo: Christian Abraham / Hearst Connecticut Media
In theory, everyone supports Connecticut’s coronavirus testing for nursing home workers as a way to stop the virus in its tracks, and to prevent it from terrorizing the frail and elderly a second time if there’s a resurgence.

In practice, however, workers and operators fear the COVID-19 testing that begins next week for nursing homes and later this month for assisted living facilities will bruise an already battered industry that has been devastated by the pandemic.

“We’re going to be in for a very difficult three-to-four weeks,” said Paul Liistro, CEO of Manchester Manor and Vernon Manor nursing homes, and a continuing care retirement community in Manchester called Arbors of Hop Brook. “Five-to-10 percent of our work force is going to be out.”

While there’s hope that Connecticut can get ahead of the deadly virus by finding where it’s been hiding in workers who don’t have symptoms, there’s equal uncertainty about who is paying for the weekly tests, how the industry will replace workers who test positive, and how marginalized workers will endure a two-week quarantine away from employment.

“Most of our workers make $15 per hour, and the overwhelming majority of them are women and black and brown people,” said Jesse Martin, vice president of nursing homes for SEIU 1199, the largest health care workers’ union in Connecticut. “If I test positive, how am I going to be able to pay my bills if I can’t work?”

The answer will vary across Connecticut, depending on whether workers have sick days they can use. Of Connecticut’s estimated 25,000 health care workers in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, SEIU represents 7,000 of them — hundreds of whom have been sickened and 13 of whom had died from the coronavirus, Martin said.

“We don’t see any difference between the fight for racial justice in the streets that so many people are engaged in now, and the fight for economic justice for our black and brown workers in nursing homes,” Martin said.

Martin is referring to nationwide protests over the public slaying of a black man in Minnesota while he was in the custody of white police officers. All four officers have been charged.

“There is no difference between not being able to breathe because of COVID and not being able to breathe because an officer’s knee is on your neck,” Martin said.

The state for its part was unprepared on Friday to clarify who would pay for the tests, which are expected to each cost about $100.

Diedre Gifford, the acting state health department commissioner, issued a four-page memo Friday with new guidance about infection control and staff testing at Connecticut nursing homes. The memo was silent about how much of the testing cost Connecticut would pay, and how much of the cost would be passed to nursing home operators or workers.

Gov. Ned Lamont in mid-May removed Gifford’s predecessor, Renee Coleman-Mitchell, amid criticism of the coronavirus’ spread to nursing homes.

Hardship ahead

Across Connecticut starting next week, hundreds of asymptomatic nursing home workers are expected to test positive for the coronavirus, and face a minimum 10-day quarantine.

This is in an industry that’s been besieged by COVID-19 all spring.

Although nursing home patients represented only 19 percent of all the confirmed COVID-19 cases in Connecticut as of Friday, coronavirus-associated deaths in nursing homes accounted for 63 percent of the statewide death toll, according to the latest numbers released by the state health department last week.

Adding coronavirus-associated deaths at assisted living facilities to nursing home deaths, the number grows to 71 percent of the statewide death toll.

Moreover, there’s been at least one confirmed COVID-19 case in 79 percent of Connecticut’s 215 nursing homes, and at least one coronavirus-associated death in 152 of those homes.

Worse, the concentration of COVID-19 cases is as bad in some homes as anywhere in the country. Health department numbers show that 79 Connecticut nursing homes have had 15 or more coronavirus deaths, and 18 of those homes have had 30 or more coronavirus deaths.

Among the hottest spots in Connecticut are East Hartford’s Riverside Health & Rehabilitation Center with 59 coronavirus-associated deaths, and Waterbury’s Abbott Terrace Health Center with 46.

The tragedy in Connecticut and other states such as New York and New Jersey is that health experts knew in early March about the cautionary tale in Seattle, where 43 deaths were linked to a single nursing home.

Lamont pledged to never let that happen here.

New guidance

That was before the federal Centers for Disease Control changed its guidance, which had previously held that only people with symptoms could spread the virus.

Today, the federal guidance is that people without infection symptoms can indeed carry the virus and spread it.

“We didn’t realize that the asymptomatic staff member was coming into the facility, not knowing if he or she had it, and spreading it to the patients,” said Liistro, who plans to pay his non-union workers while they are in quarantine. “It’s like having a double agent in your building.”

The executive director of a Groton nursing home agrees.

“The intent behind resident and employee testing is very positive, because the nursing home industry has been hit extremely hard,” said Billy Nelson, executive director of Fairview Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Care in Groton.

Like Liistro’s facilities in Manchester, Nelson’s workers are not unionized. He has created a pool of paid time for workers to use during their quarantines, so they don’t face hardships away from work, he said.

The testing initiative for workers at nursing homes and assisted living facilities comes as Connecticut partially reopens town beaches, hair salons, hotels, offices, stores and restaurants — with infection-control restrictions.

The state is confident that the worst of the crisis is behind it, even in the face of new cases and coronavirus deaths, because hospitalizations have been on a steady downhill run for weeks.

The nursing home staff testing is part of a larger strategy based on the new understanding that the only way to know for certain who is carrying the coronavirus is to test them.

The state launched a plan last month to test every patient in each nursing home, for example. As of late last week, the state had tested 131 nursing homes and found 1,200 nursing home residents with the coronavirus — most of whom were not showing symptoms, such as a fever, before the test.

Nearby states such as New York and Massachusetts, meanwhile, have been testing nursing home staff for a month.

“The real issue is this is something we should have been doing four-to-six weeks ago,” Liistro said. “It would have been more calamitous, but we would have prevented more deaths.”

rryser@newstimes.com 203-731-3342


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