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Employees Who Work At Multiple Nursing Homes May Have Helped Spread The Coronavirus

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Nursing homes have been devastated by the coronavirus. More than 84,000 residents and staff of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have died from COVID-19. A new study finds that people who work at multiple nursing homes may help spread the virus. But limiting health workers' jobs could hurt the very people that nursing homes rely on. Jackie Fortier at member station KPCC in Los Angeles reports.

JACKIE FORTIER, BYLINE: Martha Tapia works at two different nursing homes in Orange County, Calif., and she worries about bringing the coronavirus home to her granddaughter.

MARTHA TAPIA: I start work at 7, and I finish at 11.

FORTIER: That's 7 in the morning to 11 o'clock at night. Tapia is almost 60, and she works 64 hours a week. She's one of thousands of certified nursing assistants, who are predominantly women of color, who bathe, dress and feed the nation's fragile elderly.

TAPIA: We do everything for them.

FORTIER: At the nursing home where she works in the morning, she gets an N95 mask that she has to reuse and leave there. At her nursing home job in the afternoons, she only gets a blue surgical mask.

TAPIA: They say they cannot give us N95s.

FORTIER: Tapia tries to protect herself by buying her own N95 masks. She doesn't want to work at multiple nursing homes, but her Southern California rent is $2,200 a month.

TAPIA: I don't want to get sick, but we need to work. We need to eat. We need to pay rent.

FORTIER: In March, when the coronavirus began racing through nursing homes, the federal government banned visitors, but coronavirus infections kept spreading. UCLA professor Keith Chen tried to figure out why.

KEITH CHEN: The people who we can infer work in this nursing home - what other nursing homes do they work at?

FORTIER: Chen's study used anonymous cellphone data to help see the movements of people into and out of nursing homes. The data showed a lot of nursing home workers are, like Martha, working at more than one.

CHEN: When you learn that over 20 of your workers are also spending time in other nursing homes, that should be a real red flag.

FORTIER: Chen and his team found that on average, each nursing home is connected to seven other nursing homes. They also found the more shared workers a nursing home had, the more COVID-19 infections among the patients. UCLA professor Elisa Long also worked on the study.

ELISA LONG: There are some facilities in Florida, in New Jersey where they're sharing upwards of 50 to 100 workers. Again, this is over an 11-week time period, but that's a huge number of individuals that are moving between these facilities. All of these are potential sources of COVID transmission.

FORTIER: The California Association of Health Facilities represents most nursing homes in the state. In response to the study, the group said they can't prevent workers like Martha Tapia from taking jobs elsewhere, and they can't pay them more because California doesn't pay them enough through Medicaid. But Mike Dark doesn't buy that argument. He's an attorney that works on nursing home reform. And he says the state already tried paying nursing homes more in 2006.

MIKE DARK: That money tends to go into the pockets of the executives and the administrators who run these places.

FORTIER: Instead, he says regulators need to focus on the basics, especially in the roughly 100 California nursing homes with ongoing outbreaks.

DARK: Right now, there's poor access to PPE. There is still erratic compliance with things like hand-washing requirements.

FORTIER: And it's not just patients who are at risk. Nursing home workers, like Martha Tapia, are also contracting COVID-19. In California alone, 152 of them have died since the pandemic began.

For NPR News, I'm Jackie Fortier in Los Angeles.

SIMON: And this story comes from NPR's partnership with KPCC and Kaiser Health News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.