Lawmakers are calling on Gov. Ned Lamont to issue an order requiring health care workers to notify their employer if they are experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19, if they have been exposed to others with the disease, or if they are awaiting results of a coronavirus test.
The request comes after an outbreak at the Three Rivers nursing home in Norwich, where 21 residents and five staff members have been infected and three residents have died.
A registered nurse at the home reported for a double shift on July 24 and told colleagues she wasn’t feeling well and had been on a trip with at least two family members who may have contracted COVID-19, according to a state inspection report. Colleagues complained that the nurse took her mask off during the shift.
The nurse had been tested for coronavirus prior to her shift, but the results didn’t come back until days later. She was positive. Her family members also tested positive.
In addition to the lapse at Three Rivers, nursing homes in Hartford and Hamden were fined recently for failing to test employees weekly, as the state requires.
“We firmly believe that our health care workers have a professional responsibility to maintain their health, since they are working around sick people,” Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, and Reps. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, and Emmett Riley, D-Norwich, wrote to Lamont on Thursday. “Like everyone else in the midst of this global pandemic, they also have a moral responsibility – we would say a heightened moral responsibility – to immediately report any suspected COVID infections to management, and certainly not to come to work and possibly infect and kill others.”
Josh Geballe, the state’s chief operating officer, said the administration would consider the legislators’ request, but he noted that many facilities already are taking precautions by screening staff for fever and asking for travel history, among other measures.
The state Department of Public Health “already has guidance out for all health care facilities to screen employees for illness,” Geballe said. “I think at this point, it’s common sense across everyone in our state, our country and our world, that if you have symptoms don’t go to work. You need to stay home and you need to protect your community.”
“That said,” he added, “we’ll look at the request and see if there are additional measures that we could take to further clarify that.”
Nursing home industry leaders said there currently is no legal mandate that nursing home workers report to management if they feel sick.
Matthew Barrett, president and CEO of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, which represents about 145 nursing homes, said during a public hearing Wednesday that while many homes have screening procedures in place such as temperature checks and regular testing, employees are not legally required to report when they are sick.
“I’m not aware that the employees are compelled to disclose that,” he said during a hearing before the legislature’s Public Health Committee. “Sometimes I’ve heard it referred to as kind of an honor system. … The law does not compel the employees [to report] and there are no consequences under the law right now for misrepresenting that.”
Osten said she and her colleagues are also considering raising a bill that would require workers to report illness or exposure to COVID-19. The bill could be taken up during a special session planned for later this month.
In their letter to Lamont, Osten, Ryan and Riley also called on employers to respond to worker concerns and enforce rules. The state cited Three Rivers for a slew of violations, including failure to ensure proper cohorting of residents, failure to use personal protective gear in accordance with standards outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and failure to enforce a 14-day quarantine period for a resident exposed to coronavirus. The facility also did not maintain an “updated, accurate or accessible outbreak listing” for the status of residents, failed to screen a visitor for travel history, and did not ensure appropriate storage of reusable gowns, among other lapses, state officials said.
“They essentially ignored complaints of staff and residents. By not following and substantially ignoring proper protocols and procedures, the virus was permitted to spread,” the lawmakers wrote.
After days of no public response on the situation unfolding at Three Rivers, a top official at the nursing home released a statement Thursday.
“The health and safety of our residents and the staff members who care for them is our greatest priority at Three Rivers Healthcare. After the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, our infection control policies and procedures kept our residents and staff COVID-free for over four months,” said Scott Ziskin, President and CEO of JACC Health Center of Norwich, which operates Three Rivers. “Since the occurrence of positive COVID-19 cases reported in our home, we have been working with the state Department Public Health and its epidemiologists as we monitor the health of our residents and staff.
Ziskin did not address the comments made by Osten, Riley and Ryan, but said that Three Rivers has submitted a “comprehensive plan” for correction following the violations recorded by the health department.
“We continue to work with DPH on a daily basis to implement the plan as the situation evolves,” he said. “We offer our deepest sympathies to the families and loved ones of the three residents who succumbed to the virus, and remain ever-vigilant in keeping everyone in the Three Rivers family safe.”
Osten on Thursday also criticized Backus Hospital, where she said a COVID-19 outbreak has been linked to Three Rivers. Osten said four residents from Three Rivers were sent to Backus, but hospital employees did not wait for the results of rapid coronavirus tests before moving them into rooms. Some of the residents were sent to non-COVID units, she said, where staff was not wearing the proper protective gear to prevent transmission, causing an outbreak among more than a dozen employees.
Osten faulted the hospital for its handling of the residents and for not releasing information about the outbreak “in a timely fashion.”
Dr. Ajay Kumar, chief clinical officer for Hartford HealthCare, said Thursday that nine staff members had tested positive so far.
He confirmed that four residents of Three Rivers were taken to Backus, and said one of them initially tested negative for COVID-19. A subsequent test returned a positive result for that patient.
While staff wore the required protective gear, Kumar said, one of the employees donned a mask incorrectly.
“That individual, we think, contracted COVID and led to the further spread,” he said.
Kumar disputed the account of workers moving patients to rooms without waiting for test results.
“Any patient who comes into the hospital – any hospital in Hartford HealthCare – who is going to be admitted is tested, and until the result is known, they are considered as a person under investigation,” he said.
Kumar disagreed that the hospital failed to release information in a timely manner.
“This hospital has been working with DPH – from the timing perspective – in the most appropriate way,” he said. “Disclosing to the media requires some investigation for us to have an understanding where we are and what is going on. I think we we did that as soon as we had some facts and knowledge about it.”