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CDC recommendations vs. reality for nursing homes dealing with COVID-19

nurse holding stethoscope checking heartbeat of elder patient

Some of the most vulnerable people in Michigan right now live in nursing homes, where the new coronavirus has the potential to sicken and kill with alarming ferocity.

The CDC has recommended some practices and procedures to help nursing home patients and staff stay healthy. But whether facilities follow those guidelines varies, and the state would need to investigate nursing homes that get complaints before any immediate action could take place.

The CDC recommendations include isolating patients who test positive for COVID-19, screening staff before they enter the facility each day, and providing staff with personal protective gear like masks and gloves.

Testing, notification lacking - but in Detroit, help on the way

Tamara Blue, a certified nursing assistant at Ambassador Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Detroit, says there are at least three staff members who tested positive for the disease in the past two weeks, but staff wasn’t notified.

“No one is notifying us who's sick so we can get properly tested. We have to go out on our own to find ways to get tested,” Blue says.

Blue also says staff were not allowed to wear masks while working until after Governor Gretchen Whitmer asked President Donald Trump to declare a disaster in Michigan due to COVID-19.

“So we put ourselves on a front line with no protection, no cover, and this is the result. Now everybody's coming up sick,” she says.

In Detroit, help is on the way for nursing home staff. Mayor Mike Duggan announced Tuesday that staff and residents at the city’s 27 nursing homes will be tested this week.

Of the city’s 27 nursing homes,14 have reported at least one case of COVID-19. Duggan says the city will use a lab that can test for COVID-19 in 15 minutes.

“We are going to start to use the 15 minute Avid Lab test to aggressively go after infections at the nursing homes,” Duggan says.

Protective gear shortage

Blue says she and other workers have been instructed to use personal protective gear now, but they must reuse their masks every day. She says many on staff are concerned about their safety, but management has not done much to ease their concerns. Representatives for  Ambassador have not replied to requests for comment.

Atoya Brown has been working at Heartland Health Care Center in Livonia for nearly a decade. She says she faces similar challenges where she works.

Brown says a patient was showing symptoms and was tested, but it took nearly three weeks for staff to learn about the confirmed case of COVID-19.

“Three weeks ago, we all could have been infected, we don’t have [any] supplies, and you still want us to come to work,” Brown says.

A spokeswoman for Heartland Health Care sent Michigan Radio a statement saying the company is following all CDC recommendations regarding COVID-19.

“We are doing everything we can to minimize risks associated with COVID-19 in our facility. We are in very close communication with our medical director, clinical support team, local and state health officials about the appropriate steps to serve the best interests of our patients, employees and visitors. We are instructing our staff and patients to follow the recommended preventative actions," the statement says.

Lisa Elliot, a certified nursing assistant at Regency of St. Clair Shores, says the health care staff aren't getting proper support from management.

“We're dealing with these residents hands-on, one on one. We don't have the proper equipment.… So it's like [management] is playing with a lot of our lives and now we don't feel safe up in here,” Elliot says.

Ciena Healthcare, which owns Regency of St. Clair Shores, has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Employee screening

Nursing homes and other health care institutions in Michigan say they have been following the CDC’s recommendations about screening employees before they enter the building.

Several nursing home employees say they've been getting their temperatures taken as they enter work and they've filled out questionnaires about their health before arriving.

Elliot, Brown, and Blue all say they get their temperatures taken by someone else at their nursing home before they start their shifts. The only self-reporting the three women say they do is to note how healthy they feel overall before coming to work.

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Bryce Huffman was Michigan Radio’s West Michigan Reporter and host of Same Same Different. He is currently a reporter for Bridge Detroit.
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