Health care workers learn how to don and doff protective gear to prepare for the Coronavirus, held at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck on 02/24/20. Video by Mitsu Yasukawa.
Fourteen health care institutions in New Jersey, including hospitals, nursing homes and an ambulance company, have been cited by the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration for failing to provide enough equipment and other protections to health care workers who fell sick and died during the pandemic.
More facilities in New Jersey were cited in the OSHA violations announced Monday than in any other state. The fines totaled $252,150.
They included $46,266 for Clara Maass Medical Center in Belleville, where Barbara Birchenough, 65, a nurse from Midland Park, died in April after contracting the coronavirus just days before she was to retire. A nurse’s aide who worked with her, Nestor Bautista, 62, also contracted the virus and died.
Her son Matthew Birchenough, reached Monday, said the discipline by the federal Department of Labor was small comfort compared with the suffering and death endured by many.
“It’s nice to see some accountability,” he said. “But it’s really a pittance compared to my mother’s life, her co-worker’s life, and everything her co-workers went through taking care of her and other patients.”
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Lack of personal protective equipment, or PPE — including gowns, face masks, face shields and gloves — as the pandemic roared into North Jersey in March and April was a constant source of worry and alarm among health care workers at hospitals, nursing homes and doctors’ offices. Some hospital nurses wore garbage bags when gowns ran out. They reused face masks for days or a week, when a change of PPE was recommended for each patient.
As they worked without protection to care for patients, hundreds of health care workers in New Jersey fell sick. More than 100 have died, based on obituaries and other records.
The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, where Emergency Department nurse Pamela Orlando died, was fined $8,675 by OSHA. The Waldwick office of the Valley Physicians Group, a medical practice associated with Valley Health, was fined $9,639. Jessie Ferreras, a primary care doctor in the Waldwick practice, died April 3.
A tribute to Dr. Jessie A. Ferreras, on the front lawn of his home, prepared by Valley Medical Group employees after his death on April 3 from coronavirus complications. (Photo: Courtesy of Nico Ferreras)
Two Hackensack Meridian Health hospitals and one of its nursing homes were fined a combined $77,110. Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen — where Nancy Martell, 58, a patient care technician in the Emergency Department, and Alfredo Pabatao, 68, an orderly, died — was fined $38,555. JFK Medical Center in Edison was fined $25,061, and Meridian Subacute Rehabilitation, a long-term-care facility in Wall, was fined $13,494.
“Employers must take action to protect their employees during the pandemic, including implementing effective respiratory protection programs,” said Lisa Levy, OSHA office director for the Hasbrouck Heights area.
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Among the violations cited by OSHA at various facilities were failure to provide PPE, failure to fit workers so that their masks had a tight seal that prevented virus particles from entering, and failure to train workers adequately in how to don and doff the PPE without contaminating themselves or other people. Other violations included failure to report an illness or death among workers, to have a written “respiratory protection program” and to provide a safe workplace.
The state’s largest health care union reported in July that more than 200 of its members said they became sick with coronavirus complications and two-thirds said they did not have proper PPE when they provided care to a COVID patient. Three-quarters of those responding to the survey by the Health Professionals and Allied Employees union said they had to reuse their N95 masks, and nine-tenths said they never were taught how to decontaminate their PPE for reuse.
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“We must show we learned something from our mistakes during the first wave” of the pandemic, HPAE’s president, Debbie White, said Monday. The number of new COVID diagnoses and hospitalizations has increased over last two weeks, sparking concerns of a second wave after months in which the spread of the virus has slowed.
“Healthcare workers are sacrificing and risking their lives every day to care for patients,” she said, while at the same time “sometimes having to fight employers for the vital personal protective and respiratory equipment that they need.”
Other institutions in New Jersey cited by OSHA so far are:
- Bergen New Bridge Medical Center, fined $9,639 for failing to properly test the fits of face-piece respirators on employees who were required to use them, and to train employees about how and when to use a respirator. Susana Pabatao, a nurse’s aide at Bergen New Bridge, died of COVID four days after her husband, Alfredo.
- CarePoint Health Christ Hospital in Jersey City, fined $36,627 for five violations of failing to provide adequate respiratory protection.
- Atrium Post-Acute Care of Wayne, fined $22,555. No details of the violations were available.
- Care One at Livingston Assisted Living, fined $13,494 for one serious violation of respiratory standards.
- Bell Medical Transport, an ambulance company based in Orange, fined $24,290 for four serious violations of failing to provide adequate respiratory protection.
- Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, part of RWJBarnabas Health, and South Mountain Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center, each cited for unspecified violations with no accompanying fines. Don Ryan Batayola, 40, an occupational therapist at South Mountain, died on April 4. The state lists four employee deaths at that facility.
Previously, the Harborage in North Bergen, a long-term-care facility operated by Hackensack Meridian Health adjacent to Palisades Medical Center, was fined $28,070 for failing to provide face masks to workers caring for patients with COVID, and to fit and train the workers in their use.
The fines were levied at various times in September. Each facility has 15 business days to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
More than 4,000 worker complaints have been filed nationwide, and many investigations remain pending.
Lindy Washburn is a senior health care reporter for NorthJersey.com. If you know of a health care worker who died on the front lines during the COVID pandemic, please email her.
Email: [email protected] Twitter: @lindywa
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