A Pennsylvania nursing home where two dementia patients died over the weekend after contracting COVID-19 has struggled to contain the spread, with staff thinned by suspected infection and fears for their own safety.
Brighton Rehabilitation and Wellness Center in Beaver released a statement Wednesday that 34 of its 458 residents have tested positive, and that seven tests are pending.
Pennsylvania's 694 other nursing homes together have reported about 130 total positive tests from residents, mostly in the region around Philadelphia, but state officials worry about what's to come.
Matt Yarnell, president of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, which represents workers at Brighton, said he received reports that some of them "believed they were forced to work in unsafe circumstances and walked off."
"I don't have details on the walkout," Yarnell said. "I'm not sure it was a big one."
Union officials planned to meet with Brighton management to seek assurances workers would have sufficient protective equipment and those off work awaiting their own COVID-19 tests will continue to be paid, he said.
Hannah Vance, a licensed practical nurse who has been working at Brighton through a nurse staffing agency, said she was having trouble last week finding masks for herself and for the certified nursing assistants who have the most contact with ill residents. After five phone calls, another nurse was able to find four and gave them to Vance.
Vance said she decided not to go back to the facility since that Thursday shift because she has two small children.
“My only goal is to reach out to anyone who can help, and I don’t want to cause panic to families,” Vance said.
About 20 nurses, many who were relocated to the area by staffing agencies, had either walked out or decided to not come back for shifts by the end of last week, Vance said. Some had even returned home to places such as Georgia and Louisiana.
Vance has been texted by the staffing agency she works for several times this week asking whether she would return to Brighton.
The situation at Brighton has alarmed Ravijet Reddy, chief executive of MHS, a Monroeville-based testing lab brought in by Brighton to speed up its test results.
Staff spoke to him about conditions there, he said, including a supervisor who was distraught when they spoke Thursday or Friday, “saying staff walked out of the place” once they learned of the testing results.
“She was in tears,” Reddy said, telling him she did not know what to do.
Brighton's medical director, Dr. Dave Thimons, said Monday that some of the coronavirus patients there had begun to improve in recent days and that the number requiring oxygen had dropped from 11 to three.
“I feel hope when I look at the rest of the patients who yesterday and the day before were lying in bed and not eating,” Thimons said. On Tuesday, Thimons said he was not aware of any staff walking off the job at Brighton but was too busy to talk.
The statement released Wednesday by Brighton said it has been fitting staff with a stockpile of respirators, has an adequate supply of gowns and has not seen a “mass exodus of staff.”
The statement referred to “scattered reports of unconfirmed allegations, which are nothing more than a human’s fear manifesting itself."
Visitors are not currently allowed in Pennsylvania nursing homes, and the situation at Brighton has some family members concerned.
Helen Tutelo’s 46-year-old brother has been a resident at Brighton in the dementia ward for nearly a year. Her father spoke to him Sunday, she said, but the family has not heard from anyone since being notified Friday that residents had tested positive.
“We aren't sure if my brother is one that tested positive or not yet. My father talked to him on Sunday and he was doing fine, but that doesn't mean he isn't positive with the virus,” Tutelo said. “I've tried not to bother his caseworker and main nurse because I know they are going through a lot at the moment, especially since my dad had contact with him and he was laughing and didn’t show signs of distress.”
State Health Department spokesperson April Hutcheson said government regulations prevent her from discussing conditions at specific nursing homes but said there have been problems in the state's nursing homes with staff not coming to work.
“Some folks have had experiences where employees have called off because they've had concerns,” Hutcheson said.
Brighton was sold by Beaver County, which ran it as the Friendship Ridge nursing home, about six years ago for $38 million to Comprehensive Healthcare Management Services.