Soldiers’ home in Holyoke, site of deadly epidemic, has dealt with systemic issues for years, say union and staff members

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In addition, according to employees and a union representative, the lack of personal protective equipment and the hostel’s recent decision to group the veterans in narrower neighborhoods likely increased the outbreak at the facility.

Since Monday, 25 veteran residents have died since March, 18 of whom tested positive for Covid19 with three additional results pending.

A nurse, speaking on condition of anonymity since they are not allowed to speak to the press, said the home had been understaffed for about two years.

Emails shared with CNN between union officials and the state reflect the union’s concerns over staffing levels in recent years. Cory Bombredi, an internal organizer of SEIU Local 888, which represents 270 staff members at the home, said that, according to his data, the facility has been operating at 80% of its workforce for the past few years. In the past two years, Bombredi said the facility has fired 70 certified nursing assistants and licensed practical nurses.

“They’ve gone through all the available labor” in western Massachusetts, said Bombredi. The emails and agendas for meetings in 2019 and earlier this year show the union’s repeated concerns about using mandatory overtime instead of 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 staff, many nurses are currently working overtime and quick turnaround times, the nurse said.

When staff began to fall ill in March, the nurse said that the home had started consolidating veteran units to allow smaller staff to administer more veterans at once – for example , nine veterans shared a dining room together as a unit, and 3-person rooms accommodated four veterans.

“We already had personnel problems, already understaffed, so I don’t think they were prepared for the number of employees who fell ill and had to leave, so they had to combine units so that there are more veterans per staff member, “the nurse told CNN.

Bombredi explained that the dining room, which does not normally accommodate beds, did not have adequate electrical connections, leaving the beds for veterans unable to get on and off for their comfort and for caregivers to attend. more comfortably. . The nurse and Bombredi also said that the facility was mixing veterans who were tested for Covid-19 with other residents.

“This is a building that clearly housed all of these veterans in their own private setting,” said Bombredi. “For some reason, the management team thought that the best solution was to combine sick veterans with healthy veterans. “

“Completely insane”

Erin Saykin, a certified nurse aide who has worked at home for 16 years, echoed these same concerns. Saykin said that staff were instructed to wear simple surgical masks and gowns which they claimed were not normally 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 adequate access to appropriate personal protective equipment.

During his additional shifts, Saykin worked with a patient who would later be positive. This veteran was mixed in a room with other veterans, she said. She believes the patient should have been isolated, despite the difficulty of isolating some patients with dementia.

“He should have been moved from the unit, closed to everyone,” said Saykin.

Saykin woke up in the middle of the night after her shift and felt like she couldn’t breathe. She has been tested and found to be positive for Covid-19, and has been recovering at home for more than two weeks.

CNN reported last week that a home nurse was reprimanded in March for wearing personal protective equipment (PPE). The worker – a caregiver – says that he first came into contact with a veteran with symptoms consistent with Covid-19, who was not isolated, but rather was walking and coughing, and while working to on a different floor of the facility, he also observed a second veteran with symptoms. The employee’s actions were described as “disruptive” and “extremely inappropriate”, which would have “alarmed the staff”.

“We have no voice to challenge what management decides,” said the second nurse, who wanted to remain anonymous when asked if any of these concerns had been raised with management. The nurse said that the staff were concerned not only about her own safety, but also that of her family members.

Union representative Bombredi confirmed that he had heard many of the same concerns from the nurse and from Saykin from other members.

“It is not one or two of my employees who tell these stories to me,” said Bombredi. “It’s a majority at this point, and they all tell the same story. “

The union on Saturday filed an official grievance on behalf of its members demanding that four more additional management be placed on leave, in addition to the home manager who has already been on leave.

“We need insurance for them to be fully investigated,” said Bombredi. “At this point, we will have to see a whole new management team take control of this house to have confidence in us.”

A total of 59 veteran residents tested positive as well as 31 employees according to the Massachusetts Department of Health and Human Services. Governor Charlie Baker last week ordered an investigation into the home and what led to the outbreak.

“The veterans we lost – some of them could have stayed with us a little longer,” said Saykin. “It was completely insane. “

The second nurse admitted that things had started to change in the past week. Everyone in the facility – veterans and staff – were tested, the nurse said, and a whole unit of veterans who tested negative were evacuated from the facility to another home. The nurse said that the veterans are further separated and that other improved cleanups have taken place.

“It’s starting to look up,” said the nurse. Bombredi added that workers now have access to appropriate PPE. Additional nurses and staff are being added with the help of the National Guard, according to the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. Among other enhanced measures, the EOHHS hired additional cleaning staff and distributed PPE.

But that does not negate the nurse’s belief that the facility was not prepared. “It’s not a surprise,” said the nurse about Covid-19. “It shouldn’t surprise any place in the United States that it happens. “

“I still love working there, and I know the people who still work there love being there because we have a great connection to our veterans,” said Saykin. “It’s not something that you can replicate anywhere. “

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