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COVID-19 has killed 154 residents, 2 staff members at RI nursing homes

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(AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias, File)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – In addition to the 154 nursing home residents who have died because of COVID-19 in Rhode Island, the disease has killed at least two nursing home workers, Target 12 has learned.

The employees included a person in their 50s working at Oak Hill Health and Rehabilitation Center in Pawtucket and a person in their 70s working at Bannister House in Providence, according to the R.I. Department of Health.

The Health Department on Friday initially said three employees had died, but a spokesperson reached out two days later saying the agency made an error. The third person initially included in the count, an individual working at West Shore Health Center in Warwick, had tested positive for the disease — but did not die, according to the spokesperson.

“We are trying to better understand where transmission happened in these cases,” Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken wrote in an email. “We don’t know if transmission happened in the community or in workplace.”

The state has not responded to a question about whether the two people who died had underlying health conditions.

The pandemic locally has proven most deadly in long-term care facilities. As of Friday, nursing homes accounted for more than three-quarters of the state’s death toll of 202. Roughly 985 residents — or 14% of the state’s entire nursing home population — have contracted the disease, along with more than 150 staff members.

“We are laser-focused on nursing homes,” said Gov. Gina Raimondo during a news briefing Friday, adding that she is deploying the R.I. National Guard to help out with staffing in nursing homes across the state starting Saturday.

The devastation has also spurred the governor to allocate funding for private employers to increase wages for employees making less than $20 per hour. The hazard pay is financial assistance the governor had hoped the federal government would cover, but she decided to take action in part because so many nursing home employees are either out sick or quitting.

“Even before the coronavirus hit, short staffing was a problem at my facility with CNAs responsible for 10 residents each,” said Aletha Browne, a ward clerk/med tech at Pawtucket Skilled Nursing and Rehab, in a statement earlier this month. “Now, because caregivers are afraid and are leaving, two-to-three CNAs can be responsible for 39 residents for the whole day.”

A nursing home employee advocacy group called Raise the Bar has issued a report showing Rhode Island has the lowest average number of care hours per nursing home resident per day in New England.

Scott Fraser, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Health Care Association, estimated roughly 25% of staff can’t come to work because of exposure to the disease — while another 20% are just staying home.

“Funding is an issue,” he said Thursday during a taping of WPRI 12’s Newsmakers. “Costs for PPE have gone up and costs for staffing have gone up.” (PPE is short for personal protective equipment.)

When asked why the disease is hitting nursing homes the hardest, Fraser pointed to the fact that the disease everywhere appears to be disproportionately affecting older adults, people in congregate settings and individuals with underlying conditions.

“All three of those describe nursing homes,” he said, adding that Rhode Island’s high percentage of older adults and the Health Department’s up-to-date reporting could also be making the numbers look worse in comparison to other places.

Nursing homes are now taking the temperature of workers before they begin their shifts in an attempt to crack down on the spread of the disease, but the number of nursing homes with the virus continues to grow.

And identifying the disease without rapid-testing is a challenge, as people can carry the disease and remain asymptomatic — meaning the virus is likely spreading undetected.

Advocates say problem is exacerbated by years of funding shortages and understaffing, which have given rise to the prevalence of third-party staffing agencies — meaning employees can work at multiple facilities.

Fraser said the Health Department has been trying to put together a list of employees who work at multiple facilities to see if there’s a trend of cross-contamination.

“That’s the insidiousness of [COVID-19],” Fraser said. “You can test negative for several days, but still be carrying the virus.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that three nursing home workers had died instead of two based on erroneous information provided by the R.I. Department of Health. The story has since been updated.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

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