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Nursing home workers called for help before surge in coronavirus cases, records show

Workers complained about a lack of masks, improper training and being forced to return to work despite having tested positive for COVID-19, state records show.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Employees at several long-term care facilities hit hard by the coronavirus sounded the alarm before the outbreak spread.

The workers complained about a lack of masks, improper training and being forced to return to work despite having tested positive for COVID-19, according to records from the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Senior care facilities have become hot spots for coronavirus outbreaks. In Oregon, 25 long-term care facilities have three or more confirmed COVID-19 cases or one or more death.

The state’s largest outbreak occurred at Healthcare at Foster Creek in Southeast Portland, with 101 confirmed coronavirus cases and 21 deaths.

Oregon OSHA records show the agency was alerted by an employee at Healthcare at Foster Creek on March 30 about concerning conditions.

“Employees lack proper PPE to do their job. Nursing Director suggested for employees to swap their face masks and/or use another employees’ face mask,” the OSHA complaint alleged.

The complaint also described how an employee was exposed to COVID-19, but not tested.

Later that week, five residents died at Healthcare at Foster Creek.

It’s not clear if Oregon OSHA shared the worker complains with health officials. A spokesperson for Oregon OSHA explained the agency could not comment due to an ongoing investigation.

An administrator at Healthcare at Foster Creek said she investigated the claims and found them to be false.

“My investigation did not identify anyone who used another employee’s mask or swap with another employee. All PPE is stored in the Director of Nursing’s office, which is easily accessible by all staff,” wrote Janelle Bufford, administrator at Healthcare at Foster Creek, in an email to KGW.

Bufford said the facility follows CDC guidelines, including related to possible exposure to COVID-19 by staff.

In April, the Oregon Health Authority and Department of Human Services visited the nursing home to evaluate its efforts to prevent the spread of coronavirus and imposed strict restrictions.

Records indicate workers at other facilities also complained to Oregon OSHA before a surge in coronavirus cases.

Health workers at Village Healthcare in Gresham complained about safety conditions on March 30, two days before the facility’s first confirmed COVID-19 case.

Village Healthcare has since reported 36 confirmed cases and two deaths.

“Employer is exposing employees to potential COVID-19 infection by failing to provide health care workers with masks,” said the March 30 complaint report.

On April 6, a worker told Oregon OSHA that nurses who tested positive for coronavirus are being told to report to work as long as they don’t show symptoms.

Two other reports from April 10 suggest there was a lack of equipment and training at Village Healthcare.

“Employees are provided one mask to use per work week,” said the April 10 report filed with Oregon OSHA. “Employer has not provided employees with training on how to protect themselves during the covid 19 pandemic.”

Village Healthcare disputed the allegations, claiming it followed the appropriate protocols required by federal and state guidelines, including screening staff for COVID-19 symptoms, use of PPE and staff training.

“The safety and well-being of both our staff and residents is always our top priority,” wrote Dianna Kretzschmar of Village Healthcare in a statement to KGW.

Worker safety complaints were also filed against Laurelhurst Village on April 6 and Country Meadows on March 26. Both long-term care facilities were hot spots for coronavirus outbreaks, according to state health data.

RELATED: Seven residents of Vancouver long-term care facility died of coronavirus

The complaints filed with Oregon OSHA could not be independently verified by KGW, since no names were included in the state records. Additionally, it is not clear what action, if any, Oregon OSHA took since the agency declined to comment because the cases are under investigation.

“We need to listen to workers in this moment,” said Melissa Unger, executive director of SEIU 503, which represents health workers in long-term care facilities.

A shortage of masks and protective equipment has been one of the biggest concerns among health workers throughout this pandemic, explained Unger.

Many small nursing homes, trying to get much-needed masks and gowns, have been competing against the government, hospitals and medical systems with much greater resources and deeper pocketbooks.

Earlier this month, the Oregon National Guard helped distribute about 400,000 surgical masks and other pieces of protective equipment to long-term care facilities throughout the state.

“That was the first big delivery,” said Unger.

RELATED: Oregon National Guard distributing PPE items to care centers statewide

Health workers in long-term care facilities believe they are best suited to assess needs and identify problems because they are on the front lines.

“We are there day-in and day-out. 365 days a year,” explained Tonya Funderburk, who works in a long-term care facility, although not one of the facilities identified in this story.

“We see these residents and take care of the residents on a daily basis,” said Funderburk. “Upper management may not even see them at all.”

As the pandemic continues to evolve, healthcare workers at long-term care facilities hope their voices will be heard and concerns addressed.

“We need to be listening to them,” said Unger. “And hear their solutions.”