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Advocate: Nursing home employees working hard to keep residents safe, connected


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — During Gov. Gina Raimondo’s daily briefing on Wednesday, it was revealed that 22 of Rhode Island’s 35 COVID-19 deaths are connected to nursing homes.

To learn more about what residents and their families are saying about the situation, Eyewitness News reached out to Kathleen Heren, the state’s long-term care ombudsman.

“People still call us the Alliance, but it’s actually the Office of the State Long Term Care Ombudsman,” she said. “We’re an independent agency where I think we’re one of 10 in the United States.”

Heren said they’re advocates for people receiving long-term care.

“Long-term care services is a broad word that means nursing homes, assisted living, home care, hospice,” she explained. “We do the Veterans Home and we do Eleanor Slater Hospital.”

Workers at these facilities are doing a good job, Heren said, adding that she understands a lot of families are afraid and might feel helpless right now.

“If we were fighting a war, we’d know what to use. We’d get missiles and tanks,” she said. “This is a war that has no face. It doesn’t play favorites. It infects anybody that it feels like doing it to.”

While almost two dozen of Rhode Island’s COVID-19-related deaths are connected to nursing homes, Heren told Eyewitness News she’s extremely proud of the staff members who continue to work toward keeping residents safe.

“We all have to try to do the best we can with what we have to work with,” she said. “I really do believe that the nursing homes need a shout-out for everything they’re doing.”

“You know people want to blame people,” Heren continued. “Who knows where any of this stuff starts or ends.”

She went on to explain how hard she is on staff members when they do something they’re not supposed to.

“They’ll hear me on the phone — nobody wants to hear from me — but I’m proud of them,” Heren said. “I really am proud of them because they’re all reaching out and getting the help they need. Nobody’s going off and doing whatever they want. They’re following the rules too, which is important.”

She said despite residents feeling lonely, nursing facilities are doing what they can to keep them connected to their families.

“We had to find creative ways to be able to have the families be able to communicate,” Heren said. “Cards, letters, they set up Facetime.”

Heren also said a lot of nursing homes are sending out emails and calling families who have loved ones within the facility.

“They’re doing a good job and they are keeping them informed,” she added.

She said when it comes to those in isolation, they may not be well enough to communicate with their loved ones.

“I’m sure that the staff is going in and saying, ‘your daughter called,’ and talking to them and letting them know,” she explained. “The one thing that they’ve been very careful of is thinking up innovations for the residents to be able to communicate with the outside, play games, according to what the isolation rules are.”

According to Heren, isolating residents who are in long-term care to prevent the spread of an infectious disease isn’t something new.

“Any infection that’s in a nursing home that can be spread from resident to resident or to the staff — the person is on isolation,” she said.

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