A U.S. National Guard soldier wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) wait for patients to arrive to a drive-thru testing center for coronavirus at Lehman College on March 28, 2020 in the Bronx, New York City. The center, opened March 23 at Lehman College, can test up to 500 people per day for COVID-19.
Nursing home workers raise alarm about lack of supplies
03:41 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

A flu shot will protect you from coronavirus, a worker reported being told by supervisors at a Rhode Island nursing home, where at least 60 residents were diagnosed with Covid-19 and at least one died.

Keep working, an employee who was vomiting and running a temperature at an Ohio long-term care facility was instructed, according to another worker complaint.

No need to tell authorities, a worker reported being told about the Covid-19 related deaths of colleagues at a Missouri nursing home.

These employee accounts were drawn from more than 500 complaints filed in recent months with the federal government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and state worker safety programs approved by the agency.

A CNN review of these records, along with reports made to other government officials and interviews with employees, show that long-term care workers across the country feel their own lives are at risk as they work on the frontlines in facilities that have become hotbeds for Covid-19 – with more than 10,000 deaths nationwide.

Like hospitals, nursing homes have faced severe supply shortages during the pandemic and have been urgently seeking assistance from the government. Worker complaints allege dangerous conditions in which staff members are deprived of basic protective gear and have been told to use coffee filters as masks and wear garbage bags or rain ponchos as medical gowns. The employees say they have been kept in the dark about outbreaks in their own facilities as they care for elderly and frail residents who are particularly susceptible to the disease.

Some of the employees’ grievances, CNN found, were made just days or weeks before Covid-19 outbreaks and deaths were announced at the same facilities. Other complaints were lodged after management was allegedly well aware the virus was spreading throughout their facilities.

Warning notices were posted on a door at an entrance to the Cedar Mountain Post Acute nursing facility in Yucaipa, Calif. There have been 21 resident deaths there -- the highest number of Covid-19 deaths in any facility in San Bernardino County.

In New Jersey, for example, the 10 facilities where CNN identified complaints to OSHA have all had coronavirus deaths. In total, these locations reported around 500 cases and nearly 150 deaths.

OSHA, which is charged with enforcing workplace safety laws, has faced criticism for its slow response to complaints related to Covid-19. A spokesperson told CNN the agency investigates all complaints and “has been acting to protect America’s workers” – saying it is paying “particular attention to protections for health care workers, emergency responders, and others with a heightened exposure to coronavirus.”

The same day CNN published its story, OSHA issued an alert with guidance for long-term care employers, providing safety tips to reduce coronavirus exposure in the workplace which included sending sick workers home and regularly monitoring supplies of PPE.

Yet, the records show that OSHA has closed many complaints after operators denied the claims or promised to address alleged issues. On-site inspections, which the agency says it launches to investigate the most serious allegations, were rare.

In the worst examples, employees reported that managers hid positive cases from staff, meaning caregivers had no way of knowing for sure whether they were treating a patient with the disease. They expressed concerns over a lack of preparation, training and supplies to prevent them from contracting and spreading the virus. Employees have also reported staff being forced to work while symptomatic for Covid-19.

“Management is not telling the staff what’s really happening nor are they taking the correct steps to prevent the illnesses,” an employee claimed in March about a Michigan facility, which declined to comment on the complaint. Even though residents were “non-stop coughing” and “very sick with temperatures and upper respiratory issues” – and some had died – the complaint said staff were told they couldn’t wear masks and that hand sanitizer was being hidden from employees.

Warnings to the government

Under federal regulations, employers are supposed to protect workers from hazardous conditions. During the pandemic, that includes requiring the use of gloves and respiratory protection “when job hazards warrant it” and ensuring workplaces are “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm,” according to OSHA’s website.

The more than 500 complaints identified by CNN come from employees working for long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes and assisted living centers, as well as hospice and home health care companies. They were filed with OSHA, as well as states with OSHA-approved worker safety programs, and date from early March to early May.

OSHA was continuing to investigate more than 300 open complaints, according to the most recent data posted on the agency’s website. More than 200 long-term care complaints had already been closed, meaning OSHA reviewed responses from employers and determined that further action was not warranted. OSHA officials can close complaints if there is “information indicating the employer is aware of the hazard and is correcting it,” according to guidance on its website, meaning that just because a complaint has been closed does not mean it was found to be invalid.

Officials at the nursing home accused of not reporting worker deaths, for example, said in their written response to OSHA that they didn’t report one employee’s death because they had only later learned it may have been related to Covid-19, and that the autopsy results were still pending. Representatives of the facilities where employees complained of wearing rain ponchos, being told to work while sick, or that a flu shot would protect workers from Covid-19, denied the accusations in statements to CNN.

Deborah Berkowitz, director of the worker health and safety program at the National Employment Law Project, criticized the lack of thorough oversight by OSHA in connection to Covid-19.

“All the employer needs to tell OSHA is we are trying,” said Berkowitz, who previously served as chief of staff and then a senior policy adviser for OSHA.

OSHA provided data to CNN showing that it had opened more than 40 Covid-19 related inspections into nursing facilities. The majority of these were triggered by employee deaths or hospitalizations, and only two were opened at facilities where there were worker complaints, according to the data available. Only three states with their own OSHA-approved worker safety programs had opened any inspections at nursing facilities related to complaints, according to OSHA.