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Safety fears leave fewer home health aides to care for coronavirus patients

"We're having an abundance of people calling us

"We're having an abundance of people calling us for care in the house after they tested positive and you can't get caretakers to go to the house for them," said Dana Arnone, owner of Massapequa-based Reliance Home Senior Services. Credit: Fran Mora

COVID-19 patients seeking at-home care from home health aides may find it difficult to find one during the pandemic as worker safety concerns grow within the industry.

“We’re having an abundance of people calling us for care in the house after they tested positive and you can’t get caretakers to go to the house for them,” said Dana Arnone, owner of Massapequa-based Reliance Home Senior Services, a home health aide agency with about 350 employees.

Calls have started coming in for patients who have been discharged from hospitals after less than a week but are still under a 14-day quarantine, Arnone said. Even after the agency spent $20,000 on protective gear like masks and face shields and offered extra pay, aides are still too scared to risk exposure to the virus, she said.

“I bought extra things to protect them  … [but]  no one’s taken me up on it yet,” she said. Arnone added that she is also getting calls from nursing homes seeking aides because of staffing shortages at the facilities.

Greg Massimi, chief operating officer of Bethpage-based TLC Companions Home Health Care, said they won’t take patients under quarantine for COVID-19.

“I can’t help them,” Massimi said. “Who would I send in there? They need to be in hazmat suits. I’m not at that level.”

William Dombi, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association for Home Care and Hospice, an industry group, said agencies across the country are facing similar situations with infected patients.

“This is not a typical care for those individuals, and they [the aides] often need to have special training and support,” Dombi said. “It’s not simply a matter of handing them the PPE [personal protective equipment].”

Dombi said some agencies are creating teams to specialize exclusively on patients with COVID-19 because not all aides are willing to take the risk, safely caring for infected patients requires special training and also to prevent spread between infected and uninfected patients, he said. 

George Gresham, president of the health care workers union 1199 SEIU that represents thousands of home health aides on Long Island, said in a statement that the federal government needs to increase funding “for the hardest hit states in the form of direct additional dollars to home care providers.”

“Home care workers are doing everything they can to keep themselves, their clients and their families safe during the COVID-19 crisis,” Gresham said in a statement. “Caregivers on Long Island and across the country are without consistent access to vital personal protective equipment, medical equipment and testing.”

Home health aides are typically paid minimum wage, and the industry relies on payments from Medicaid and private insurers. Massimi said his agency this month increased pay to aides by 15% because of the increased risk they face during the pandemic. Massimi and Arnone said the extra pay they’re offering aides is an added expense for their businesses that is not reimbursed by Medicaid or private insurance.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has proposed creating a federal “Heroes Fund” that would pay an additional $13 an hour — up to $25,000 in 2020 — as hazard pay to “essential frontline workers” in the pandemic, including home health aides.

“They have so many different expenses, whether it’s child care, PPE, transportation, different living arrangements,” Schumer said in an interview. “Thirteen dollars an hour is the least we can do for the home health aides and everybody else.”

Schumer’s proposal also includes a $15,000 incentive to recruit new health care workers. The proposal caps the total maximum premium pay at $25,000 for each essential frontline worker earning less than $200,000 per year and $5,000 for each essential worker earning $200,000 or more annually.

“The main purpose is giving people the help they deserve and need during this crisis,” Schumer said. “We did this for 9/11 ... the heroes then were the police and fire and construction workers who rushed to the towers. We have a lot of heroes now in many different walks of life.”