Frontline staff at long-term care centers say they have been forced to work without proper protective gear, compelled to come to work sick or risk termination, and punished for speaking out. They say they have become unknowing carriers of the virus, bringing it back home and fostering its invisible spread.
A nursing home administrator and at least two nurses’ aides have died of coronavirus complications since the outbreak began. Nurses, doctors and other aides are hospitalized — some in critical condition — and scores of other employees are infected. Unions representing nursing home workers are demanding that owners be held to account.
Of the 1,232 people in New Jersey who have died from coronavirus, 10 percent were long-term care residents.
Alarmed by the disclosures, Persichilli said “we have to develop a statewide plan to assist the nursing homes that are experiencing outbreaks and a shortage of staff and equipment.”
The plan she described will designate some nursing homes to care for symptomatic and COVID-positive residents, and others to care for those without symptoms. Residents will be moved within three regions of the state to the appropriate setting to avoid causing further exposures. Staff will work in one type of facility or the other, with no mixing.
Only a fraction of long-term-care residents with coughs or fevers have been tested for coronavirus because of the shortage of test swabs, priority given to hospitals and health-care workers, and, at times, the outright refusal of administrators to do so.
Delays in receiving results leave staff ignorant of their patients’ viral status as they brush their teeth and feed and bathe them. This has allowed the virus to potentially leap from symptomatic, but untested, residents to their roommates and caregivers.
Test swabs had been locked away by her supervisor, she said, and "we were told to assume everyone is positive." The nurse, who asked that her name not be used, said she was suffering from a temperature of 103.8 and diarrhea after working with residents at the home. She planned to be tested for coronavirus.
A nurse's aide said she had been exposed to the virus by her patients and several co-workers, and as the sole caregiver for her 78-year-old disabled mother, was "terrified" of becoming ill. Her doctor had advised her to self-quarantine, but the physician's note was refused, said LaDawn Chapman. She was told if she didn't show up for work, her resignation letter would be accepted.
At another nursing home in Elizabeth, Plaza Healthcare and Rehabilitation, personal protective equipment is locked in the administrator's office, two employees said. When the staff asks for it the administrator "launches it out the door" at them, because he does not want to come out, said Gabby Niziolek, a nurse's aide, who tested positive after caring for two patients she did not know had the virus.
Workers said they had been taping plastic sheet covers to their glasses to serve as face shields. An aide said she had been given one N95 mask for a week.
At the Elizabeth Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, 22 people have died, 12 after testing positive for the virus, Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage said Tuesday.
Sixteen of the remaining 58 nursing home residents currently are ill with the virus, and five are awaiting test results, he said. Yet the current official total of deaths reported by the state for Elizabeth is 13, he said.
At the Alameda Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation in Perth Amboy, eight residents had died as of Friday. Two were known to have the virus, one was awaiting a test result and the deaths of five were considered sudden and unexplained. A nurse's aide, Courlande Dauphin, also has died of complications from the virus.
At one nursing home this past weekend, two staff members cared for 45 residents.
"It's ridiculous, the staffing," said an aide. "How can one aide and one LPN [licensed practical nurse] do that?"