Nursing Home Worker Details The Harsh Realities Inside a Pacific Beach Facility
At $7,000 a month for singles and $14,000 for couples, retirement community Oakmont of Pacific Beach is one of the more upscale senior residences in San Diego.
“It’s like living on a cruise ship that doesn’t go anywhere,” said Richard Pecjak, who works as a driver for Oakmont. “And when you’re a senior citizen, that’s kind of a good place to be.”
But not lately.
As coronavirus rips through senior care facilities nationwide killing thousands, staffing shortages are creating another layer of risk.
Earlier this month, Pecjak’s supervisor asked if he could fill in as a caregiver for two women -- a 98-year-old and 102-year-old -- who had COVID-19 and were in quarantine.
He said his desire to help plus the offer of $5 extra an hour on top of his $15.50 hourly wage prompted him to say yes.
Pecjack said the only training he received was direction on how to wash his hands and put on his gloves.
“I was not afraid to go into that room with no training...ish,” Pecjak said. “I knew I could handle it. I knew I could take care of these people.”
He wore an N-95 mask, gloves and a gown when he entered their room.
“I helped bathe them, and helped them go to the bathroom and fed them, certainly helped them while they were in bed, adjusting their bedding and transferring them in and out of the wheelchair when they went to the restroom,” Pecjak said.
He said he was told that another caregiver would be with the two elderly women, one of whom is on oxygen, when he wasn’t there.
That, however, was not the case, Pecjak said. On a recent morning, he arrived to find the 102-year-old woman on the floor of her room, alone. On a separate occasion, a co-worker found the 98-year-old woman on the floor and unattended, he said.
“A 98-year-old and a 102-year-old spent a good deal of the night, holding onto the bed, falling out of it and on the floor,” Pecjak said. “If this were your mother, how would you feel if you saw something like that?”
Pecjak, who is 56, said after working four 12-hour shifts caring for the women he began to worry about his own health.
He said he approached his managers at Oakmont with two requests: he wanted to be tested for the virus and be put into a 14-day paid quarantine so he wouldn’t have to use his own sick time accrual. He said management refused both of his requests.
“Instead, I was brought straight back into the community and told to go back to my regular shift, delivering food to people, bringing them mail, doing Zoom calls with family members,” Pecjak said.
KPBS contacted Oakmont with questions about Pecjak’s allegations regarding the residents being left unattended and his other experiences. The facility responded with a statement by its public relations agency The Press Shop, run by Nathan Ballard, a crisis communications strategist.
“At our Oakmont of Pacific Beach community, we are caring for some COVID-19 positive residents, the statement said “In the course of their duties, some of our staff do interact with those residents. In all of those interactions, CDC and [state Department of Public Health] guidelines for appropriate [personal protective equipment] use are followed.”
Ballard added that Oakmont is following CDC guidelines when it comes to testing. He also sent a link to those guidelines.
His statement went on to say: “We’re proud of the hard work our staff are doing to care for our residents, and we will continue to do everything we can to protect the health and well-being of both groups.”
However, Ballard did not answer any questions relating specifically to Pecjak’s allegations.
San Diego County’s Health and Human Services Agency directed questions to the California Department of Social Services (DSS), which licenses assisted living residential communities.
DSS also declined to answer questions about Pecjak’s experience at Oakmont.
Instead, a DSS spokesman sent several links on its rules governing staffing and caregiving as well as COVID-19 protocols.
Mike Dark, staff attorney for the California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, said senior care facilities and the public need more.
“There is a lack of clarity on what providers are supposed to do in this type of situation and that is going to cost lives,” Dark said. “It’s crazy. If we don’t get on this fast, it’s going to be devastating to California.”
On Thursday, the state advised senior care communities to notify all families of residents at facilities where there have been COVID-19 cases.
Dr. Karl Steinberg, a nursing home and hospice medical director in North County, said he’s not surprised Pecjak wasn’t tested before returning to work with healthy residents at Oakmont. There is still a shortage of COVID-19 kits in San Diego County, which Steinberg called an embarrassment.
“It’s definitely not a best practice,” Steinberg said. “It’s permissible and it’s far from ideal and it does pose a significant risk to other residents because they are so vulnerable. If they do get it, they’re gonna be the ones who are likely to have respiratory failure and die from it.”
More than 3,600 residents and staff at the nation’s assisted living facilities and nursing homes have died of COVID-19, according to reporting by the PBS Newshour. The number of deaths is likely higher because not everyone who contracts the virus is tested.
One Virginia nursing home had 45 COVID-19 deaths and Police found 17 bodies inside a New Jersey nursing home that has been hit hard by the pandemic.
On Friday, Governor Gavin Newsom said the number of senior care facility staff and residents who had been diagnosed with COVID-19 had reached 3,500.
Steinberg said one way to guard against mounting numbers of deaths at senior care facilities is for public health officials to publicize the names of facilities that have confirmed COVID-19 cases among staff and residents. This would give families the option of removing their loved ones from the facilities, he said.
However, San Diego County health officials have thus far refused to name the facilities in the county with COVID-19 cases.
“We have asked them to do that but they’ve said, ‘Well it’s a privacy issue,’” Steinberg said. “I’m thinking whose privacy are we really protecting here? Do people not have the right to know that their loved one is in a facility where COVID-19 is present?”
Asked on KPBS’ Midday Edition about the county’s refusal to disclose that information, Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said if there’s something the public needs to know, if it would change their behavior or action, then health officials release the location of the outbreaks.
“Ultimately, that is the decision of our public health experts and I trust their judgement on when they need and don’t need to release that,” Fletcher said.
Meanwhile, Steinberg praised Pecjak for accepting the extra task of caregiving duties at Oakmont.
“God bless him,” Steinberg said.
Pecjak said there may be fewer people ready to answer that call as the pandemic continues.
“We’ve had a lot of caregivers just quit and give up or be afraid for their families, and not wanting to bring it home but still wanting to keep their job,” Pecjak said. “We love these people. This is what we do.”