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Nursing home residents, workers fear Covid-19 and both groups need protection, say advocates

By Tariqah Shakir-Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: May 13, 2020 - 2:11:22 PM

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WESTCHESTER, Ill.—Rage and fear are common denominators between family members their loved ones and some workers in nursing homes across the Chicagoland area and state. As nursing home death tolls rise and account for nearly half of all Covid-19 related deaths in Illinois, many are blaming it on mistreatment of residents and staff.

(L) Loretta Brady speaks with press May 6. (R) Supporter holds sign defending residents suffering from alleged neglect and/or abuse at Westchester facility.

Over 1,000 Covid-19 related deaths out of 3,241 fatalities occurred in long-term care facilities across Illinois, reported the Illinois Department of Public Health March 8. Over 10,000 deaths in nursing homes have been reported nationwide.

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, community activists and family members of Westchester Health and Rehabilitation Center residents called for a “Save Our Seniors” management plan during a press conference May 6 in Westchester, Ill., a Chicago suburb.

“The families that have lost loved ones, we’re not going to get them back,” said Commissioner Johnson. “Can we stop other families from losing loved ones?”

At least 12 residents have died at the Westchester facility.

“We know that at least $240 million has already incorporated with the Illinois Health Care Nursing Association; $70 million has already been marked to go towards frontline workers,” he continued. “And so we’re not just calling for greater oversight and more staff or support, we’re calling for more protective gear and equipment but we’re also calling for the release of the $240 million that can actually not only provide better pay to make sure that these facilities are stable but we need hazard pay for these workers.”

The “Save Our Seniors” management plan includes funding for personal protective equipment which is sparse for nursing home workers and better administration to improve working conditions.

The Westchester facility is accused of forcing staff positive for Covid-19 to work for days spreading the infection in mid-March. The facility was also accused of failing to inform family members that loved ones may have been exposed to the deadly coronavirus.

Conditions for nursing home workers have been so bad that members of SEIU Healthcare Illinois announced that workers planned to strike at 40 facilities, saying there is insufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) and no appropriate hazard pay.

The Illinois Association of Health Care Facilities announced May 6 it was negotiating an agreement with workers.

Francine Rico, of the Nursing Homes Division of SEIU, said nursing home staff and residents are scared for their lives. “We’ve reached out to certain politicians to do the right thing and provide the proper PPE and the things we need to take care of our residents in a dignified way,” she told The Final Call in a phone interview.

“It’s a problem. Our members are scared but you try to do the best you can, but staff is really poor at this point. … We’ve got a lot of residents that’s not familiar with us, so I had a lady ask from yesterday, ‘what’s going on?’ It’s a virus, it’s a bad pandemic, and I don’t think she really understood it. … It’s mind-blowing, they’re scared. They’re (patients are) scared for the ones that’s got to take care of them.”

Mrs. Rico said the labor union has reached out to local officials for assistance and is hoping for the best. “We actually spoke with Jan Schakowsky (a U.S. congresswoman), been working with the governor; they’ve informed us that they will be working closely with nursing homes. ... I’m hoping that our congressmen don’t forget that we are essential workers out here.”

At the May 6 press conference near Westchester Health and Rehabilitation Center, Londa Claybon said ill-treatment was to blame for the loss of her mother, Carrie Claybon.

“Right now, I’m just so frustrated because back in December, I tried to get my mother out of that place. I tried to get them to release my mom to me because I was going to take care of her and this was before the corona was even known about, and they told me I had to have a referral.”

And, she said, a referral was just one of many additional requirements she needed to meet to remove her mother from the Westchester facility. But before Mrs. Harris could move forward, her mother died from Covid-19 last month.

“What was really heartbreaking to us was for them to limit to 10 people to attend her going away. I’m asking personally if you haven’t seen your grandmother or your sister or whoever for months on end and then they pass away, please at least give them a little time to bury them decently!” she said.

Loretta Brady said her mother was neglected by the nursing home administration. “My mother, Lottie Smith, she came here for only 30 days and it lasted because she fell. But the problem is this: They’re not doing anything; you can’t talk to nobody. The administrator here now—they plot against you, they’re not caring for you, they’re not doing anything.”

“They told me if I want somebody, I have to go pay for somebody. That’s not right, that’s not right. It’s no answer why my mother’s having seizures and she never had seizures. We need help, we really do.”

Activist Wallace “Gator” Bradley, who was at the press conference, told The Final Call the governor needs to step in. “There’s a law on the books called the Nursing Home Act. The Department of Public Health are the ones who enforce it. They will come down and shut this place down, get out the bad administrators. That’s what he can do now,” Mr. Bradley said. He is president of United In Peace, which he described as a multi-faith and multi-ethnic movement against violence.

The Nursing Home Act ensures residents of nursing homes receive quality care that will achieve or maintain “highest practicable” physical, mental and psychological well-being.

“He (Gov. J.B. Pritzker) may mention of this facility along with 14 other facilities, and if the other 14 facilities are in the same place as this, enforce the law that you have at hand and make the rest of them fall in line,” he added.