‘They Call Me a Criminal’: Nursing Home Workers Who May Spread the Virus

As states struggle to keep the coronavirus out of nursing homes, employees who work at multiple facilities are thought to be behind some of the continuing spread.

By Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — In late May, Jean-Junior Vertu and Marie Julceus, two employees at a long-term care facility near West Palm Beach, Fla., took a routine test for the coronavirus and then went about their workday. They felt fine. Mr. Vertu, a dietary aide, pureed food for the residents while listening to Haitian dance music. Ms. Julceus, a nurse, helped them eat.

When their seven-hour shift ended, they went straight to their second seven-hour shifts, at different nursing homes.

Little did they know that, as they traveled several times that week from one facility to another, they had been taking the virus with them.

“When I got the message that said I was Covid positive, I got scared,” said Ms. Julceus, 50, who learned she had the virus at about the same time that Mr. Vertu did. “I took my temperature, I laid down and said, ‘Oh my God, oh my God.’”

Although it is often impossible to pinpoint exactly who spreads the virus and how, public health experts trying to understand the virus’s lightning surge through nursing homes have identified staff members working at multiple facilities as an important risk factor.

Florida, which has one of the country’s highest populations of older people, has for several months had a strict ban on visitations and prohibited hospitalized Covid-19 patients from returning to nursing homes until they had twice tested virus-free. Yet new outbreaks at the state’s nursing homes have continued to emerge, suggesting that staff members — especially those who travel from one facility to another — are the most likely explanation.

At Oasis Health and Rehabilitation Center in Palm Beach County, where Ms. Julceus worked nights, there have been 17 deaths and 73 cases among staff members and residents, infections whose origins have not been clearly identified. Recent research shows that the center is connected, via shared staff, to 25 other “high-risk” facilities that have also had outbreaks whose origins may be staff-related.

Health policy analysts say that poorly paid staff members working two or more nursing home jobs may be significant contributors — usually unwittingly — to the spread of the virus. Several nursing home employees in Florida have been terminated after being accused of coming to work sick.

“Unfortunately, staff have been the largest vector towards bringing Covid into nursing homes around the country,” David Grabowski, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, said.

“I don’t know that there’s a lot of other pathways in,” he said. “Florida is pretty closed down, and yet they’ve seen a rise in cases.”

Across the United States, more than 62,000 nursing home residents and staff members have died from Covid-19, about 40 percent of the nation’s coronavirus fatalities. Florida has counted 4,232 deaths at long-term care facilities, according to state data, with such facilities accounting for more than half of all Covid-19 deaths in June. Then in July, over a three-week period, the number of residents testing positive doubled.

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