A recent COVID-19 outbreak resulting in the infection of 118 residents, 49 staff and one employee’s death at Burlingame Skilled Nursing has left many workers concerned for their safety and demanding better working conditions.
“It’s like popcorn. When you put popcorn in a microwave one pop and it’s all over. You can’t control that,” said Irma Bandala Castro, a certified nursing assistant, or CNA, who has worked at Burlingame Skilled Nursing for five years.
When the pandemic first struck the region, Castro, 44, said the facility, owned by Brius LLC, strictly adhered to state and county safety guidelines, successfully avoiding an infection for months. Then when a few cases occurred in October and November, staff were initially asked to volunteer to work with the patients in a sectioned-off area called the red zone and were offered hotel lodging to prevent infections from spreading to their homes.
Floors were also sectioned into a yellow zone where residents who frequently left the facility for appointments were kept and a green zone which accounted for COVID negative patients who remained on site.
But by December, Reynafe Mosquera, a 35-year-old licensed vocational nurse, or LVN, at the facility, said a major outbreak surfaced. Eventually, she said miscommunication by supervisors and slow test results led to uninfected patients being roomed with those who had tested positive and staff would find themselves unknowingly interacting with both.
Mosquera, calling conditions a disaster, said infections quickly spread to employees, exacerbating an existing staffing shortage which the facility’s union representative Gaelan Ash said reached unsafe levels.
Currently, CNAs are caring for upwards of 20 patients which the union would like to see brought down to 10. LVNs often roam, said Mosquera, caring for the entire ground but Ash said the union would like a 20-to-1 ratio instead.
Having been at the bargaining table for months, Ash said facility management has been unwilling to offer pay raises or increased staffing to alleviate the strain on employees, resulting in a demonstration Wednesday afternoon.
Castro, who works on a floor with 92 patients all sick with COVID, said sometimes she and one other co-worker will be tasked with overseeing the entire floor, making providing care to a floor of sick, debilitated or dying patients impossible.
“It’s a shame,” said Castro. “The strong might survive but the others who have respiratory problems are not going to make it. It’s very sad.”
Bernie Mellott, the executive director of Ombudsman Services of San Mateo County, an advocacy agency for long-term care facility residents, said outbreaks are unpreventable and predicting one is impossible. One infected person can lead to dozens of infections, she said, adding “this virus is not choosy.”
Burlingame Skilled Nursing management informed the Ombudsman and the county of the outbreak a week ago, said Mellott, and the National Guard was called in to assist the facility. Mellott said she was unaware of how quickly the virus was spreading but noted other facilities have experienced outbreaks and recovered well. Facility management and San Mateo County Health officials declined to comment.
“It’s like a cancer, it really is,” said Mellott. “Burlingame does a fine job. It just happened to hit them all at once.”
Silverado Belmont Hills Memory Care Community, an assisted living facility at 1301 Ralston Ave. in Belmont, had one resident die directly from complications related to COVID-19 in January, while another resident with dementia receiving hospice service died with COVID-19, according to Jeff Frum, senior vice president of communications with Silverado, who added they are still waiting for vaccine clinic dates.
Because those living in long-term care facilities often have serious health problems, Mellott said she doesn’t keep count of deaths. The AFSCME Local 829 union estimates 19 Burlingame Skilled Nursing patients have died from the outbreak as well as one employee whose sister, a fellow co-worker, has also contracted the virus.
While vaccine distribution has begun at the facility, Castro and Mosquera still fear bringing the virus home. Mosquera has a 3-year-old son to care for and has had to quarantine once because a family member tested positive for the virus.
Castro, the mother of two teens, lives in a one-bedroom apartment with her children and husband. For the past three weeks, she has slept outside in a tent to prevent her family from getting sick.
“I want to keep my family safe but I have no place to go,” said Castro. “For me this is personal.”
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