A nursing assistant at Brighton Rehabilitation and Wellness Center tested positive for the novel coronavirus Tuesday morning. After speaking with her boss, she said she was told to come in to work.
She refused, and claims the nursing home she has worked with for over a decade is “out of control” and in need of immediate intervention from the outside world.
Joni Mortimer of Daugherty Township is one of six employees in the nursing home who have tested positive for coronavirus, according to Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents the workers.
Twenty-six patients have also tested positive for the virus, with 18 others awaiting test results, according to a Tuesday facility press release. Two residents of the facility, frail and in hospice care, died Monday after contracting COVID-19. The facility houses 458 residents.
Many employees have quit their jobs, according to a Facebook post by the resident council president Tom Lewarchik, leaving the facility severely short staffed. “Where is the department of health they are failing our diseased, disabled and dying residents,” Lewarchik wrote.
Mortimer said the entire security staff also is gone. “Our security all works for an outside company and everyone was told the company laid them off and that’s why they were gone,” Mortimer said. Other sources claim security personnel quit.
Job listings on Indeed.com show Brighton Rehab “urgently hiring” for positions including registered nurse supervisors, certified nursing assistants, and dietary aides. A Tuesday job listing seeks “temporary workers” for security, reception, and general office duties.
On Monday, the center’s Medical Director Dr. David Thimons said he was unaware of any sick staffers. He expressed concern about future staffing shortages, but said the facility was under control at that point.
BeaverCountian.com has contacted federal, state, county and local officials for comment, with many saying they have no authorization to intervene in the situation.
State Rep. Josh Kail, R-15, whose district includes the Brighton Township facility, said he’s only getting the same daily state health department figures everyone else has access to, and is frustrated with not receiving more information.
“We have no authority over Brighton Rehabilitation and Wellness Center,” said Eric Brewer, director of the Beaver County Emergency Management Agency. “This is a nursing home, and in Pennsylvania, the PA Department of Health oversees nursing homes. Unfortunately, we can’t do anything.”
Department of Health Press Secretary Nate Wardle said his agency has been in communication with the facility.
“We are seeing cases of COVID-19 in about .1% of residents living in long-term care and nursing facilities throughout the commonwealth. We are in regular contact with them, including Brighton Rehabilitation and Wellness Center, and filling their requests for supplies of personal protection equipment for staff to care for patients. At this time, no nursing home in Pennsylvania has requested assistance that would require a mobilization of the Pennsylvania National Guard.”
Mortimer has been a CNA at Brighton Rehabilitation for the past eleven years, with all of that time spent working in unit 3 Main.
“There are long-term residents on one side of the hallway where I work, and the other side are patients on ventilators,” Mortimer said.
While patients on ventilators now immediately conjure images of pandemic victims, the patients she cared for did not have the coronavirus, she said. None of her patients did.
Mortimer said she began experiencing a headache early last week as she was washing patients to start their day, as well as delivering and collecting their breakfasts, helping to feed people, and cleaning up after the meal.
Mortimer, like all employees of Brighton Rehabilitation, had her temperature checked as she arrived at work that morning as part of screening procedures the facility touts to keep the virus at bay. It was normal.
Brighton Rehab described its protocols in its Tuesday media release.
“We continue to implement many of the procedures that we put into place weeks before our first confirmed case, such as restricting access, using only one entrance, screening staff, and attempting to diagnose and test residents who we suspect may be positive. We also continue our practice of taking guidance from the CDC guidelines and the Department of Health.”
The facility also boasted of the protective gear it has on hand. “It has a program for fit testing N-95 masks for our staff and are using all categories of recommended PPEs. We are fortunate that unlike many other facilities we have acquired N-95 masks as well as surgical masks, sanitizer goggles and the like.”
“We were given one disposable surgical mask to wear all day long,” Mortimer said. “You’re supposed to wear a new one after each patient. I figured wearing it like that is what gave me the headache.”
The headaches were mild and lingered for two days. On Tuesday, March 24, she started to feel worse.
“I went into work, still didn’t have a temperature, but I noticed my throat felt raw. It got so sore I could barely swallow,” she said. “I told my unit director I didn’t think I should be here. She had me go down to the nursing department and I got sent home. Their policy now is if you go home sick, you have to wait seven days to go back.”
Mortimer sat at home, still never registering a fever, but noticing she was starting to have trouble breathing.
“I get out of breath even talking too long,” she said Tuesday evening, in a voice that had been labored throughout the interview.
On Monday night, Mortimer called Brighton Rehabilitation. She was scheduled to return to work the next day.
“I said my seven days are up tomorrow, and I’m having trouble breathing now. What should I do? She asked if I could come up right now (for a coronavirus test,)” Mortimer said. “They did the test in the parking lot, had me drive up outside behind the building to do it.”
Mortimer said she got the news of her positive test result from a supervisor Tuesday morning. “I turned 63 today and this is my birthday present. ‘You have COVID-19.'”
In the back of her mind, she said she started to feel a little bit relieved at first.
“We are all so afraid of getting this, and I was relieved that I seem to be one of the people who are having mild symptoms, because I know it could be a lot worse. I know it could be fatal.”
As she was processing the news of her diagnosis, Mortimer said she was stunned by what she was told next.
“She said, ‘technically you can come back to work,’ and I said what? I told her I still have symptoms, I still have shortness of breath, I am coughing, how can I go up there and work like that? She said, ‘of course, we’re not forcing you to come back, but we need you back as soon as possible.’ She said I would just have to wear a mask all day.”
Mortimer refused and called off using her own personal time.
“Nothing makes sense to me. They test everyone’s temperature everyday supposedly to make sure no one has COVID. They tested me for the virus, I tested positive, and then they told me to come back to work. I know that I am contagious and it’s ridiculous that they would expect someone to do that.”
After learning of the news, Mortimer said she called two co-workers to inform them. She said they told her of experiencing similar symptoms, and claimed the facility has refused to test them for the virus. Like her, neither have registered a fever.
Mortimer said she fears she may lose her job coming forward, “we were told we were not allowed to speak to the press, they might fire me for this.”
She relies on the health insurance from her job to care for her and her husband, who also is now experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19, but said she felt compelled to speak out.
Her patients, many who now feel like family, need help she says.
“My mind is just going crazy right now. They are not taking the necessary precautions there. They try to make it sound like they are doing everything possible and it is not being done. This company that took over from the county, this place has been going downhill since they bought it. Their main concern is that money. I just feel that their shady practices are going to cost a lot more people to get sick and possibly die from this.”
BeaverCountian.com contributing editor Lori Boone contributed to this report.