'They Call Me a Criminal': Nursing Home Workers Who May Spread the Virus

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“When I got the message that said I was COVID-positive, I got scared.'

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — In late May, Jean-Junior Vertu and Marie Julceus, two employees at a long-term care facility near West Palm Beach, Florida, took a routine test for the coronavirus and then went about their workday. They felt fine. Vertu, a dietary aide, pureed food for the residents while listening to Haitian dance music. Julceus, a nurse, helped them eat.

Although it is often impossible to pinpoint exactly who spreads the virus and how, public health experts trying to understand the virus’s lightning surge through nursing homes have identified staff members working at multiple facilities as an important risk factor. “Unfortunately, staff have been the largest vector toward bringing COVID into nursing homes around the country,” David Grabowski, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, said.

The typical nursing home has, on average, staff connections with 15 other facilities, said the report, which concluded that “eliminating staff linkages between nursing homes” could reduce coronavirus infections in nursing homes by 44%. “What our research is suggesting is that the real culprit here, epidemiologically, appears to be shared staff,” said Keith Chen, professor of behavioral economics at the UCLA Anderson School of Management and a lead author of the report.

One temporary staffing agency in Florida, Interim HealthCare, said it contracts employees to three nursing homes in the Miami area, all of which have had outbreaks. Krystal Bay Nursing and Rehabilitation Center reported seven deaths and at least 39 cases among staff and residents; West Gables Health Care Center, 10 deaths and 88 cases; and Seasons Gardens, no deaths but 36 cases.

“If there is significant community spread, staff are at risk of contracting the virus and bringing it into the nursing home or assisted living facility,” he said. Vertu, 33, the dietary aide, said he gets paid about $9.80 an hour, a salary he said has remained roughly unchanged since he started working 14 years ago. Julceus, who is a certified nurse, earns about $12 an hour.

“There are really good owners out there who do a good job and try to pay people more,” said Dr. Alice Bonner, who advises on care of older adults at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. “But if you’re getting mostly Medicaid clients in your nursing home, and you’re getting very little money for those clients, and it’s not covering your costs, then it’s really hard to increase salaries and benefits too.

 

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