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Long-term care workers, grieving and under siege, brace for coronavirus’ next round

‘All of us know COVID-19 is coming,’ one nursing home worker says. ‘Every day, we say: Is today the day it will come back? Is today the day I’ll find out I have it?”

Registered nurse Stefania Silvestri (from left), certified nursing assistant Edwina Gobewoe and recreational therapist Kim Sangrey are three nursing home workers who struggle with grief over the suffering from COVID-19 they’ve witnessed.
Registered nurse Stefania Silvestri (from left), certified nursing assistant Edwina Gobewoe and recreational therapist Kim Sangrey are three nursing home workers who struggle with grief over the suffering from COVID-19 they’ve witnessed.
Provided

In the middle of the night, Stefania Silvestri lies in bed remembering her elderly patients’ cries.

“Help me.”

“Please don’t leave me.”

“I need my family.”

Months of caring for older adults in a Rhode Island nursing home ravaged by COVID-19 have taken a steep toll on Silvestri, 37, a registered nurse.

She can’t sleep, as she replays memories of residents who became ill and died. She’s gained 45 pounds.

“I have anxiety,” she says. “Some days, I don’t want to get out of bed.”

As the coronavirus surges around the country, Silvestri and hundreds of thousands of workers in nursing homes and assisted-living centers are watching cases rise in long-term care facilities with a sense of dread. Many of these workers struggle with grief over the suffering they’ve witnessed at work and in their communities. Some, like Silvestri, have been infected with the coronavirus and recovered physically — but not emotionally.

Since the start of the pandemic, more than 616,000 residents and employees at long-term care facilities have been struck by COVID-19, according to the latest data from KFF. Just over 91,000 have died as the coronavirus has invaded nearly 23,000 facilities.

Harold Pollack.
Harold Pollack.
University of Chicago

At least 1,000 of those deaths represent certified nursing assistants, nurses and other people who work in institutions that care for older adults, according to a recent analysis of government data by Harold Pollack, a professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. This is almost certainly an undercount, Pollack says, because of incomplete data reporting.

How are long-term care workers affected by the losses they’re experiencing, including the deaths of colleagues and residents they’ve cared for, often for many years?

Edwina Gobewoe, a certified nursing assistant who has worked at Charlesgate Nursing Center in Providence, Rhode Island, for nearly 20 years, says, “It’s been overwhelming for me personally.”

At least 15 residents died of COVID-19 at Charlesgate from April to June, many of them suddenly.

“One day, we hear our resident has breathing problems, needs oxygen, and then a few days later they pass,” Gobewoe says. “Families couldn’t come in. We were the only people with them, holding their hands. It made me very, very sad.”

Every morning, Gobewoe would pray with a close friend at work.

“We asked the Lord to give us strength so we could take care of these people who needed us so much,” she said.

When that colleague was struck by the coronavirus in the spring, Gobewoe prayed for her recovery and was glad when she returned to work several weeks later.

But sorrow followed in early September: Gobewoe’s friend collapsed and died at home while complaining of unusual chest pain. Gobewoe was told her death was caused by blood clots, which can be a dangerous complication of COVID-19.

She would “do anything for any resident,” Gobewoe said, sobbing. “It’s too much, something you can’t even talk about,” describing her grief.

In July, when I first spoke with Kim Sangrey, 52, of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, she was distraught over the deaths of 36 residents in March and April at the nursing home where she’s worked for several decades — most of them due to coronavirus and related complications. Sangrey, a recreational therapist, asked not to name the home, where she continues to work.

“You know residents like family — their likes and dislikes, the food they prefer, their families, their grandchildren,” she says. “They depend on us for everything.”

When the pandemic hit, “It was horrible,” she says. “You’d go into residents’ rooms, and they couldn’t breathe. Their families wanted to see them, and we’d set up Zoom wearing full gear, head to toe. Tears are flowing under your mask as you watch this person that you loved dying — and the family mourning their death through a tablet.

“It was completely devastating. It runs through your memory — you think about it all the time.”

Mostly, Sangrey says, she felt empty and exhausted. “You feel like this is never going to end — you feel defeated. But you have to continue moving forward.”

Three months later, when we spoke again, the number of COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania was rising, but Sangrey sounded resolute. She’d had six sessions with a grief counselor, and it had become clear that “my purpose at this point is to take every ounce of strength I have and move through this second wave of COVID.

“As human beings, it is our duty to be there for each other. You say to yourself, ‘OK, I got through this last time, I can get through it again.’ ”

That doesn’t mean that fear is absent. “All of us know COVID-19 is coming. Every day, we say, ‘Is today the day it will come back? Is today the day I’ll find out I have it?’ It never leaves you.”

Silvestri feels horrified when she thinks about the end of March and early April at Greenville Center in Rhode Island, where up to 79 residents became ill with COVID-19 and at least 20 have died.

The coronavirus moved through the facility like wildfire.

“You’re putting one patient on oxygen, and the patient in the next room is on the floor ,but you can’t go to them yet,” Silvestri says of that time. “And the patient down the hall has a fever of 103, and they’re screaming, ‘Help me, help me.’ But you can’t go to him either.

“I left work every day crying. It was heartbreaking — and I felt I couldn’t do enough to save them.”

Then, there were the body bags.

“You put this person who feels like family in a plastic body bag and wheel them out on a frame with wheels through the facility, by other residents’ rooms,” says Silvestri, who can’t smell certain kinds of plastic without reliving these memories. “Thinking back on it makes me feel physically ill.”

Silvestri, who has three children, developed a relatively mild case of coronavirus in late April and returned to work several weeks later. Her husband Michael also became ill and lost his job as a truck driver. After several months of being unemployed, he’s now working at a construction site.

Since July 1, the family has gone without health insurance, “so I’m not able to get counseling to deal with the emotional side of what’s happened,” Silvestri says.

Though her nursing home set up a hotline number that employees could call, that doesn’t appeal to her.

“Being on the phone with someone you don’t know, that doesn’t do it for me,” she says. “We definitely need more emotional support for health care workers.”

What does help is family.

“I’ve leaned on my husband a lot, and he’s been there for me,” Silvestri says. “And the children are OK. I’m grateful for what I have — but I’m really worried about what lies ahead.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation), which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.