Hospital and nursing home staff: The masked faces of healthcare on the front lines
All workers are essential – none more than the healthcare professionals in hospitals and nursing homes who are taking care of vulnerable patients despite the multitude of risks amid a global pandemic.
Their jobs are always challenging, especially now, but nurses, maintenance workers, food service employees, housekeepers, and all of those who keep healthcare facilities safe and sanitary have stepped up when our communities, our country, and the world need them most.
Depending on patient density and geographic location, the stories at various hospitals and nursing homes throughout Pennsylvania vary, but similar precautions are being taken across the board.
“It’s very stressful right now,” said Stacey Miller, Treasurer of AFSCME Local 691 (UPMC – Altoona) and Scheduling Secretary in the Operating Room at UPMC Altoona, a hospital in downtown Altoona where Bedford County’s first COVID-19 fatality was treated. AFSCME represents hundreds of employees at the hospital, including licensed practical nurses (LPNs), clerical staff, housekeepers, and dietary staff, many of whom come into direct contact with patients in one way or another.
“It’s stressful not knowing how many people it’s affecting.”
Stacey tells a similar story to that of other facilities. Employees have their temperatures taken and are given masks upon arrival to work. She urges people to take this virus seriously and follow social distancing guidelines.
“I think people need to really realize how scary this is. It’s not just a flu. Wear a mask. Do social distancing. Do what you’re being asked to do, and it makes things easier. If you don’t have to be out, stay at home.”
Fortunately, no UPMC employees are known to have contracted the virus, but unfortunately, that is not the case everywhere.
Frank Rittenhouse, member of AFSCME Local 2348 (Norristown State Hospital) and LPN at Norristown State Hospital, says approximately 15 to 20 staff are out due to testing positive for COVID-19, along with about 10 infected patients in his unit. Multiple COVID-19 deaths have been reported at the facility.
“I don’t think it’s under control. I think it’s far from it,” Frank said.
While the usual precautions of temperature checks and mask distribution are taking place, concerns remain. Frank says there was a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) at the outset of the pandemic, which has slightly improved, but they still have to use masks for up to a week when they should be changed every few days.
“I would ask people to stay home and I would ask management to listen to us and provide us with what we need,” Frank said.
Despite imperfect conditions, nursing staff, aides, housekeepers, and maintenance staff at Norristown put on their masks and gowns and report for duty.
On the opposite side of the state, AFSCME Local 2446 (Warren General Hospital) members are taking precautions and bracing for the worst, but they have seen relatively few COVID-19 cases.
Local 2446 President and Radiologic Technologist at Warren General Hospital Derek Jensen says the most frustrating thing has been 31 members being forced to take leave or unemployment compensation, but teamwork and community support have kept morale steady at the facility.
“The community has stepped up and done more than we could ever expect them to do,” Derek said.
“All in all, members are all standing up strong and working together. Teamwork has increased knowing we all have each other’s back in this.”
As hospitals deal with the ever-evolving situation that the pandemic has presented, nursing homes have a unique set of circumstances with an especially vulnerable population.
AFSCME Local 1435 (Gracedale Nursing Home) President Craig Gardner is a housekeeper at Gracedale Nursing Home in the hard-hit southeast region of Pennsylvania where 70 residents have tested positive for COVID-19, four have passed away, and six have recovered, while 26 staff members have tested positive, and eight have recovered and returned to work.
“It’s a team effort. It’s an ‘all hands on deck’ kind of thing. We have to do what we have to do to take care of our residents,” Craig said.
AFSCME represents LPNs, certified nursing assistants (CNAs), housekeepers, dietary staff, laundry staff, and therapeutic recreation staff at the home. Because of their dedication, the facility has received praise from Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine as well as Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania representative and trained emergency nurse Michael Whalen, who said, “Gracedale Nursing Home has demonstrated several best practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. You are the largest long-term care provider (LTC) under a single roof in the Commonwealth, but your number of COVID-19 patients are well below the average of most LTC in the state. I attribute this accomplishment to many factors, especially the dedication of your entire staff and strict adherence to current CDC guidelines.”
There has been an outpouring of support from the community for Gracedale staff and residents alike, with messages written in chalk on crosswalks and volunteers driving around the property for those inside to see. On top of that, Craig says communication between the union, management, and the county has allowed for a good working relationship.
“My staff rep and I have been on two to three phone conferences a week with county administration and the administration here at the nursing home to be in contact about what’s going on and what we need to do to work together,” Craig said.
Meanwhile, at Claremont Nursing Home in Carlisle, President of AFSCME Local 3504 (Claremont Nursing Home) Alicia Figueroa says there are no known cases among staff or residents, and residents are “healthier than ever” due to restrictions on visitors.
She hopes to keep it that way and believes that between following the nursing home’s strict procedures and open communication between staff and management, they will do so.
“It doesn’t hurt for the public to think of us. If they have extra masks or PPE donate to Claremont, we can always use it,” Alicia said.
“We want it so when we open the doors, their loved ones will be there, and they can hug them again.”