In addition, according to employees and union representatives, the lack of personal protective equipment and the recent decision at home to consolidate veterans to more stringent places is likely to increase outbreaks at the facility.
A nurse, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press, said the house was under staffed for about two years.
E-mail shared with CNN between union and state officials reflects union concerns about staffing levels over the past few years. Cory Bombredi, an internal organizer for SEIU Local 888, representing 270 house staff members, said that according to the data the facility has been operating at an 80% staffing rate in the past few years. In the past two years, Bombredi said that the facility had fired 70 certified nurse assistants and practically licensed nurses.
“They have gone through all the available manpower” in the western Massachusetts region, Bombredi said. Emails and meeting agendas from 2019 and earlier this year show recurring concerns expressed by unions about compulsory overtime used as a substitute for adequate staffing.
Massachusetts Health and Human Services, which oversees the facility, refused to respond to union allegations despite repeated attempts by CNN.
In terms of staffing, many nurses work overtime and turnover is fast now according to nurses.
When staff began to get sick during March, nurses said that the home began to consolidate veterans’ units to allow smaller staff to manage more veterans at once – for example, nine veterans sharing a common dining room as a unit, and 3 – private bedrooms accommodating four veterans .
“We have experienced staffing problems, lack of staff, so I don’t think they are ready for the number of staff who are sick and have to leave, so they have to merge units so that there are more veterans per staff member,” the nurse told CNN.
Bombredi explained that the dining room, which usually does not accommodate a bed, did not have adequate electrical connections, leaving the bed for veterans who could not move up and down for their convenience and for caregivers to be able to care for them more comfortably. . Nurses and Bombredi also said that the facility was mixed with veterans who were being tested for Covid-19 with other residents.
“This is a building that clearly accommodates all these veterans in their own personal settings,” Bombredi said. “For whatever reason, the team of managers thinks the best course of action is to combine sick veterans with healthy veterans.”
“Really makes no sense”
Erin Saykin, a certified nurse aide who has worked at home for 16 years, voiced this same concern. Saykin said that staff were instructed to wear simple surgical masks and gowns which he said were not commonly used and that they did not have access to N95 masks. Bombredi also told CNN that he had heard from other staff that they did not have proper access to proper personal protection equipment.
During his overtime shift, Saykin worked with a patient who would later be tested positive. The veteran mixed in one room with other veterans, he said. He believes patients should be isolated, despite the difficulty of isolating some patients suffering from dementia.
“He should have been removed from the unit, shut down from everyone,” Saykin said.
Saykin woke up in the middle of the night after his shift and felt like he couldn’t breathe. He was tested and learned that he was positive for Covid-19, and had recovered at home for more than two weeks.
“We don’t have a voice to oppose what management has decided,” said the second nurse who wanted to remain anonymous when asked if there were any issues raised by management. Nurses said that staff were worried not only about their own safety, but also the safety of their family members.
The Bombredi union representative confirmed that he had heard many of the same concerns about nurses and Saykin from other members.
“These are not one or two of my workers who tell me these stories,” Bombredi said. “Here, at this point, the majority, and they all tell identical stories.”
“We need insurance that they will conduct a thorough investigation,” Bombredi said. “At this point we need to see a totally new management team taking over the house to have confidence going forward.”
On Monday, 25 veterans have died since March, 18 of which have tested positive for Covid19 with three additional results pending.
“The veterans we lost – some of them can stay with us a little longer,” Saykin said. “This really doesn’t make sense.”
The second nurse admitted things had started to change in the past week. Everyone at the facility – veterans and staff – has been tested, nurses said, and all veteran units tested negative have been evacuated from the facility to other homes. The nurse said that more veterans were separated, and other cleaning had taken place.
“It’s starting to look up,” the nurse said. Bombredi added that workers now have access to the right PPE. Nurses and additional staff are being added with assistance from the National Guard, according to the Executive Office for Health and Human Services. Among other refined steps, EOHHS has recruited additional cleaning staff and has distributed PPE.
But that does not negate the nurse’s belief that the facility was not prepared. “This is not surprising,” said the nurse about Covid-19. “It should come as no surprise to any place in the United States that it will come.”
“I still like working there, and I know people who still work there are happy to be there because we have great ties with our veterans,” Saykin said. “That’s not something you can copy anywhere.”