Understaffing at nursing homes may be making coronavirus crisis worse: "It makes me mad and it makes me scared"

Nursing home staff shortages during pandemic

Out of more than 89,000 deaths from the coronavirus in the United States, over 28,000 are connected to nursing homes, CBS News has confirmed. And a lack of staff at these facilities may have made the problem worse.

Lisa Cook's husband Bruce, who suffered two strokes, is recovering at the Stoney Point Healthcare Center near Los Angeles.  

"I feel like I'm lying to him when I tell him I'm going to see him soon," Cook told CBS News correspondent Jonathan Vigliotti. "I have to say that to him, so he doesn't give up."

Before coronavirus, Cook said Bruce had made progress through months of speech and physical therapy. She is now worried he's declining and she's concerned about his care.

"The actual caregivers there are my angels, I call them," Cook said. "But they don't have time to look after him the way, you know, I mean, they don't have the time. Bruce is absolutely at their mercy."

At least 14 Stoney Point residents and eight staff members have tested positive for COVID-19. California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform filed a complaint with the state about conditions at the facility during the outbreak.  

A report issued by the California Department of Public Health found a deficiency in "infection prevention and control," including a nurse entering a resident's "isolation room without wearing PPE" and then grabbing a cart without cleaning his or her hands. 

"It makes me mad and it makes me scared because that's unacceptable," Cook said. "But I know, it probably happens because they're overworked and understaffed."

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services gave Stoney Point a below-average rating for staffing. 

"Understaffing is really the original sin of the nursing home industry in that so many other problems like neglect, like infection control, really stem from it, and that was the case long before this virus showed up," said Mike Dark, an attorney with California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform.

There are no federal regulations on staffing levels, but federally certified nursing homes are required to have a licensed nurse on duty. CBS News found that roughly one in 15 U.S. nursing homes was cited last year for failing to meet standards for "sufficient nursing staff."

Now the outbreak, which has sickened workers and prompted others to stay at home, is hurting staffing levels even more.  

"What we've heard from our members about staffing since the pandemic is that the conditions are far worse than they ever have been," said April Verrett, the president of SEIU Local 2015, California's largest union, which represents one-quarter of the state's nursing home workers.

Verrett said the median salary for nursing home workers is about $23,000 a year. Advocates say operators need to increase pay and hire more employees. They also want the family members to be allowed back if they've been tested for coronavirus and have proper PPE. 

"For him to recover, or any other patient that's in there, or to stay well, they have to have their families there. They absolutely do, and there's got to be a way," Cook said.  

Responding to the inspection report, Stoney Point said, "We take such reports seriously, and this one was no exception. We took immediate corrective action upon receiving the notice and instilled additional training for all staff members on proper infection control procedures."

The facility said it has "an unwavering commitment to provide the highest level of care" for patients.