Health care workers at Safire Rehabilitation of Northtowns protested on Friday, saying they haven’t been given adequate personal protective equipment or safety training despite the fact both they and residents are sick with COVID-19.
About 20 employees stood outside the Town of Tonawanda 100-bed nursing home and held signs while wearing masks and social distancing. According to the nurses’ statewide union that organized the protest, 1199SEIU, five employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and several residents also have the virus.
“They have not done enough to keep our members safe,” said 1199SEIU Vice President Todd Hobler, “and it got to a point where we had to take a public stand.”
Safire of Northtowns has provided some masks, but they have not conducted fit tests, according to Hobler. A fit test ensures masks are properly sealed, often by spraying a mask-wearing health care worker with a scented aerosol and seeing if they can taste it.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires periodic fit tests. Last month it recommended health care works change from a quantitative fit testing method to a qualitative method to preserve the integrity of respirators.
Hobler said 1199SEIU provided some fit testing for Safire of Northtowns workers this week.
He added workers have also been offered almost no training on how to use what PPE they do have.
“The workers were afraid and people were getting sick,” he said.
Safire of Northtowns, located on Sheridan Drive, is rated a one-star facility by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, meaning “much below average.” It’s owned by a for-profit company and some downstate residents.
The company did not immediately return a request for comment, but a spokesperson, Michael Balboni, told The Buffalo News that Safire of Northtowns has a 12-day supply of PPE, including 3,000 masks and N95 masks for workers providing direct care to COVID-19-positive patients.
Balboni also accused nurses of being motivated by contract negotiations, noting union workers’ contract with Safire expires next month.
Hobler called that accusation “ludicrous.” He said workers have been voicing concerns for weeks, but that management has canceled two scheduled meetings to discuss safety protocols.
They’re not the first Western New York nurses to publicly raise concerns about conditions in their facility.
Elderwood at Amherst nurses sent a letter to Erie County District Attorney John Flynn earlier this month, asking him to investigate the facility's inadequate safety measures, The Buffalo News reported.
Elderwood at Amherst had just opened a 22-bed unit for COVID-19 patients as part of a New York state mandate that nursing homes accept COVID-19-positive patients from hospitals.
Nursing home residents account for roughly 2,700 of the state’s more than 10,000 COVID-19 deaths, according to data released by the state Department of Health. There were 46 nursing home deaths in Erie County as of Wednesday.
Three Erie County facilities have had at least five deaths each, including Garden Gate Health Care Facility (11), Harris Hill Nursing Facility (9) and Father Baker Manor (6).
However, Hobler said he believes the problems at Safire of Northtowns “are much greater than others that we're seeing in nursing homes” in Western New York.
“Some nursing home operators are really doing excellent work and providing the PPE and the training and working very hard to keep their workers safe and the residents safe,” he said, “and then others, some of these for-profit guys, out-of-town owners, are not. And that's why we're out here because they need to do better.”