Coronavirus puts strain on nursing home staffing

Deanna Dewberry
Updated: May 22, 2020 11:18 PM
Created: May 22, 2020 09:17 PM

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — A quarter of the COVID-related deaths in our state have been in nursing homes and long term care facilities.

Now the governor says he's making seniors his number one priority.

But a staff member and former resident at a Rochester nursing home feel conditions there may be putting lives at risk.

And they're talking exclusively to News10NBC investigator and anchor. Deanna Dewberry.

It's rare that a nursing home employee agrees to talk to us.

That's because there's a real risk of losing your job.

But this employee and a former resident felt so strongly about what they believe is inadequate staffing at Shore Winds Nursing Home in Rochester, they called me.

And they're pushing the highest levels of state government for change.

"Thank you for interviewing me," Elsie said.

Elsie Walzer is distraught, but determined. She says her story must be heard.            

"Of course, I'm crying and I'm like who deserves this all I'm asking is for care," Elsie said.

She's talking about her stay at Shore Winds Nursing Home in Rochester. She was sent there in late March for rehab after falling and breaking her leg.  

Elsie is also a type one diabetic, and she says her care was complicated by other issues as well.

"When you have a bladder of kidney infection you have to go a lot," Elsie said.

And that, she says, raised the ire of a caregiver on her floor. 

"'She goes what is your *expletive* problem?'" And I said 'Excuse me. All I wanted was a bedpan.' And she said, 'That's not gonna work. I'm gonna have somebody come in, one of my aids come in, and put you in three diapers,'" Elise said.

She says when she desperately needed to use the bathroom, staff did not answer her cries for help.

"So then I'd sit in piss, *expletive* for three or four hours," Elsie said.

Elsie says she developed a bacterial infection and had to go to a hospital, where her condition improved. But she says she's worried about others.

"I think to myself, ‘Why am I being treated this way? But if I’m being treated this way how are the other patients being treated?’" Elsie said.

Her concerns are echoed by a staff member who we'll call Kate. 

She asks that we hide her identity because she fears she'll be fired. Shore Winds is part of the Hurlbut Care Community of nursing homes. 

Kate feels the facility has often been short-staffed but she says fewer staff members are coming to work because of fears of catching COVID-19 from infected patients. 

Kate: "I had 38 residents and one nurse.”

Deanna: “One nurse and 38 residents?” 

Kate: “Yes. And that's not the first time or the second time or the third time. It's becoming more frequent because so many people have quit. Yes."

Kate says the floor had one licensed practical nurse, who primarily managed and administered medication, and one nurse's aide responsible for all other patient care for 38 patients. 

Kate also provided a sign-in document in which two aides hand wrote that he or she was the only aide on the floor.

Deanna: "Are you worried about the quality of care you're able to give patients?”

Kate: "Yeah because I just can't just... can't... I just can't do everything."

New York State law says, "Nursing homes are required to have the appropriate staff to assure that each resident receives treatments, medications, diets and other health services in accordance with individual care plans." It's left up to nursing homes to decide what is or is not "appropriate."  

Kate reported what she believed were staffing deficiencies to the state department of health, sparking an investigation.  

A department spokesman issued this statement:

"The Department of Health launched an unannounced COVID-19 focus inspection on May 15 and found the Shore Winds Nursing Home in compliance with infection control practices and CDC-supported guidelines issued by New York State and confirmed that PPE is readily available. In addition, the Department provided assistance to Shore Winds with transferring several residents to other appropriate health care settings. DOH completed its investigation and no deficiencies were cited."  

Bob Hurlbut, President and CEO of Hurlbut Care Communities released the following statement:

“We employ more than 1,500 people across our facilities. Like other essential workers, our brave healthcare heroes put themselves at risk on the front lines of this crisis every day to care for someone else’s loved one and then go home to care for their own families. 

Even with extreme measures in place, this virus has proven to be immensely difficult to control, especially given physical distancing is nearly impossible in the nursing home environment, due to room sharing and the fact that we provide the most intimate level of care, from brushing teeth to bathing and incontinence care. These needs don’t just go away because of a virus, and I understand the real fear this level of intimacy during a pandemic creates for our dedicated staff, and why some have chosen to remove themselves from that environment. 

As many facilities such as ours and healthcare organizations around the county have said, we need the State’s help and support in the form of more PPE, more testing, and more back-up staff resources. We were given access to a ‘portal’ for healthcare workers in NYS by NYSDOH, but unfortunately, many of the nurses listed had been retired for more than 20 years. I also know that several health care systems in the area are being forced to furlough nurses and other healthcare workers due to budgetary concerns. We will gladly interview and hire them for temporary or full-time work within our facilities. 

-Robert W. Hurlbut
Hurlbut Care Communities”

As for Elsie and Kate, they're also pleading with state leaders and Gov. Cuomo for change. 

"I would tell him they're not getting the care that they deserve and we are overwhelmed and afraid," Kate said.

"Do something! End this now! Not later! Now!" Elise said.

Again, the State Department of Health made an unannounced visit to the Shore Winds last week and found it in compliance with infection control mandates; but leaders at Lifespan, sn elder advocacy non-profit, say for years they've been urging lawmakers to enact legislation that mandates minimum staffing ratios at nursing homes, like California. 

While bills have been proposed, they've gone nowhere.

Last year, The Department of Health conducted a study on whether the state should have minimum staffing regulations in nursing homes.

The study was supposed to be complete last December, but health leaders tell me the study is still under review.

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