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Healthcare worker union battles with state health department over nursing home accountability

The state says they’ll help in getting critical supplies but say that it's mostly their responsibility.

When it comes to nursing homes, two drastically different stories are emerging. The state says they are holding them accountable. The SEIU healthcare union says that’s not happening. Keep in mind that while nursing homes are regulated by the state, they are run by private companies. The state says they’ll help in getting critical supplies but say that it's mostly their responsibility.

Emotion spilled over during Friday’s update from nursing home workers on the front lines. The exhausting work is having real-life family consequences. Zina Bennett works at a nursing home in Trumbull. With all the symptoms, she likely has COVID and told FOX61 now her son just got tested.

 "t’s a nightmare. It’s really a nightmare. Even to know that my son had to be tested it’s scary. When you watch your 12-year-old ask the emergency room doctor how many kids die from it. That’s some time you never want and never can imagine," Bennett said as she fought back tears.

SEIU is the largest healthcare union in the state. They represent 6,000 workers at 69 nursing homes. They say 3 of their members have died of COVID and 1,000 more have tested positive. They claim nursing home deaths total 646, significantly higher than the last reported state number of 375. 

We asked the Governor's office to defend their data but did not get a response by news time. They did, however, say the DPH has done site inspections of more than half the nursing homes. 

"That same team at our public health department is out in the field. They’ve now completed 115 site visits to our nursing homes. Inspecting their infection control procedures," said CT Chief Operating Officer Josh Geballe.

But the union says those inspections are little more than a phone call. 

"DPH officials were often relying on the word of the administrator. They’d make a phone call, talk to the administrator, do you have enough PPE? Yes, I have enough PPE. OK. End discussion. We’re all good here," explained SEIU 1199 President Rob Baril.

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On PPE, the state says shipments were given to nursing homes that needed it.

 "Good deliveries in the last 24 hours. We got a shipment of 2-million additional surgical masks. We’ve made those deliveries to different state agencies and nursing homes and other groups in need," said Geballe.

But the union says members are not seeing the PPE and still using trash bags. They accused administrators of hoarding it. 

"To this point, the Department of Public Health has not done what they need to do which is to fine facilities. They need to penalize the facilities so they have something to fear if they continue to hoard PPE," said Baril.

The state is issuing 5,000 fines for nursing homes who don’t comply with data reporting, but the union says it doesn’t go far enough. Meanwhile, the state of New York has just launched an attorney general led the investigation into their nursing homes. All this, as staffing shortages reach critical mass. The union is claiming they have dire staffing needs at 15 nursing homes. Michael Furlow works on a COVID only floor at RegalCare in New Haven. "Being asked to work an extra shift if we don’t have coverage for the shift after it? So what that does is puts us over 17 hours working on a COVID unit," he said.

CT meanwhile has also issued an executive order requiring assisted living facilities to report their infection data. They perform many of the same services like a nursing home but are regulated differently. As for new numbers, we were supposed to get nursing home-specific data reported by the state every Thursday. It didn’t happen. The Governor’s Office then told us first thing this morning, it didn’t happen. Now we’re being told those numbers will be part of Friday evening's data release.

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