Hamilton

Heritage Green Nursing Home staff 'afraid' due to lack of masks, gloves amid COVID-19

Staff at a local nursing home worry about not wearing enough protective equipment to safely care for residents

‘They're like firemen running into the fire with no equipment on,’ says president of healthcare worker union

Hamilton Public Health just declared an outbreak at Heritage Green Nursing Home after two confirmed cases. (Submitted by Google Maps)

While public health officials say they continue to work alongside Heritage Green Nursing Home to manage the facility's COVID-19 outbreak, frontline workers there say they're afraid and need more protection.

At least 20 workers, including personal support and nursing staff, from Heritage Green Nursing Home have complained to their local union representative about the way the home is managing a COVID-19 outbreak among its residents.

Restrictions around protective equipment have left some workers feeling uncomfortable and led them to contact public health over concerns of their own health — and a couple of workers have since been told to get tested. 

"The frontline workers have been calling me every day," says Heritage Green union representative Matthew Douglas from SEIU Healthcare union. 

The outbreak, declared Saturday by the City of Hamilton, involved two second-floor residents —  80-year-old Maria Bettencourt, who was in care at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton when she tested positive and a 55-year-old woman who is self-isolating in the home. On Tuesday morning, Bettencourt died in hospital and became the first COVID-19 death in Hamilton. 

"They're not being provided the proper, necessary personal protective equipment. They have zero face-masks and zero goggles and they're afraid." 

Though workers are concerned, it appears the home is following the appropriate measures outlined by the Ontario Ministry of Health.

However the union's provincial president, Sharleen Stewart, says she feels those measures are not enough and the union is pushing the government to improve protections for long term care workers.

"They're like firemen running into the fire with no equipment on," she told CBC News.

Masks "not needed"

According to Douglas, workers requesting masks are being told they are "not needed." 

Additionally, of the seven staff members who were in contact with the COVID-19 positive patients and told to self-quarantine, one returned back to work after five days — several days short of the required two week period. 

The individual was reportedly cleared by public health and allowed to return to work, Douglas said, adding that he doesn't know the status of the others.  

Hamilton's associate medical officer of health Bart Harvey said public health staff are closely working with staff at the home to end the outbreak.

" I understand that staff that are working in a home where two residents have already tested positive for it, now one resident has died of it. You know it's a natural human reaction to be concerned, to be anxious."

He said public health staff are there to "ensure that the processes that need to be carried out to minimize if not ideally eliminate kind of the risk of contamination and infection with this virus are happening." 

Ministry rules

Ontario's Ministry of Health "COVID-19 Guidance" resource for long-term care homes identifies the precautions that staff directly in contact with suspected or confirmed positive COVID-19 residents should follow. These measures include wearing a surgical/procedure mask, isolation gown, gloves and eye protection (goggles/face shield). 

The guidelines say "administrative areas and administrative tasks that do not involve contact with a resident with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 do not require the use of (personal protective equipment)." 

Harvey said with a locked down nursing home, staff should "treat all of those individuals as if they were infected and they're incubating the virus, so whenever they need to provide care within that six feet radius, then they should be wearing eye protection, a surgical mask and gloves and ideally they should probably have a gown on or some sort of clothing cover..."

But care workers who have spoken to CBC and the union say that all necessary protective equipment is not being worn by staff in contact with residents on any floor of the facility. 

Signs directing staff to not wear any protective equipment, unless in contact with a COVID-19 patient or told to do so by a manager, were placed around the nursing home Monday. (Supplied by SEIU Healthcare Union)

CBC News has not heard back from Heritage Green regarding a request for comment.

Douglas says he hasn't been able to receive a lot of information about the situation from Heritage Green administrators because they haven't responded to him since March 18 — the same day the first patient tested positive. 

Nursing home resident is Hamilton's first COVID-19 death

The home's first positive case was detected in Bettencourt at St. Joseph's hospital. Bettencourt had gone to the hospital on March 16 for a scheduled treatment and after returning to the nursing home, she developed symptoms. She then returned to the hospital to get tested and was isolated there.

During the city's virtual press conference Tuesday, health officials confirmed the woman's death. 

"Our Heritage Green family is very sad to learn of this passing," Heritage Green administrator Scott Kozachenko said in a press release. "Our thoughts and prayers are with her loved ones at this time. We continue to do everything within our control to contain the virus and prevent the spread in our nursing home." 

Douglas said he is not aware of any direct communication from the home to staff about the resident's death. 

"The administrator of the home is not going out and reassuring staff that everything is going to be alright and that they are doing everything possible to take care of this vulnerable population." 

In light of the death, Douglas said he "hopes" this changes the way the organization responds to the virus.

"Staff are upset and sad for the family and they just want the administrator and the home to get this right to make sure that they stop this in its tracks," he said. 

The second patient, who was confirmed positive over the weekend, is self-isolating at the home and "doing well" as of Monday, said medical officer of health Dr. Elizabeth Richardson. 

Care homes across Ontario 'should not' wait until symptoms arise to protect staff 

Stewart said that since the virus can be spread by those who aren't showing symptoms, the homes "should not be waiting until symptoms are present" to protect workers because at that point "it's too late." 

But even if workers wanted to take their safety into their own hands, Stewart said some of the homes and hospitals are storing equipment in locked cabinets. 

Heritage Green staff who have been directed to quarantine or self-isolate are also being made to use their vacation time and sick days, despite the home qualifying for extra financial support from the Canadian government, says Douglas. 

There's been no explanation as to why staff are not being compensated for missed shifts, Douglas said, adding that if the home were "properly" communicating with union and frontline workers, some of these concerns could be alleviated.  

According to its website, Heritage Green is a non-profit senior care facility with three-storeys and 167 beds. The organization, which is affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, operates as a senior centre, nursing and retirement home. They provide care for people who need extra assistance in daily activities, including those diagnosed with dementia or with a stable chronic health condition. 

About the Author

Jennifer La Grassa

Reporter/Editor

Jennifer La Grassa is a reporter/editor for CBC Hamilton. Email: jennifer.lagrassa@cbc.ca