PW special report: Voices from the pandemic, part 2

By: - May 1, 2020 6:00 am

[Editor’s note: This is the second in a new series of special reports from NC Policy Watch that we’ve entitled “Voices from the pandemic.” In these brief vignettes, our award-winning team of journalists will share snippets from the lives of typical North Carolinians attempting to cope with and respond to the unprecedented global public health crisis.

We welcome your feedback, as well as your help in identifying other individuals whom we might feature in future installments of the series. — Rob Schofield – [email protected].]

Unnamed certified nursing assistant

The certified nursing assistant profiled here has worked at a Salisbury nursing home, now known as The Citadel, for 11 years.. This account of conditions inside the nursing home is from their sworn affidavit in lawsuit filed with the Rowan County Superior Court as part. While their name has been redacted in the public version of the court filing, it is disclosed in the document that has been sealed by the court. This has been edited for clarity and space. — Lisa Sorg

By the time the dangers of coronavirus and its spread were well-known in America, throughout March 2020, our facility had a staff ratio of two-to-three CNAs per hall, per shift. There were approximately 26 to 35 beds per hall. On most of our halls, the patients required total and full care or assistance with all activities of daily living: bathing, dressing and bathroom assistance. Most patents were of declining health and had numerous medical problems in addition to their physical infirmities. Our patients required significant care, and it was extremely difficult to care for 15-20 patents alone for my 12-hour shift. I made approximately $12.87 per hour plus a $1 shift differential for my work.

Throughout the entire month of March we were not required to wear masks. I recall that the management at the facility locked up or hid the masks so that staff could not access them. I do not recall any type of emergency meeting to discuss sanitation. I recall getting hand washing [training] and guidance about self-reporting our temperature. That was it. I felt that we were told virtually nothing.

Throughout March 2020, when the facility was supposed to be in quarantine, The Citadel continued to admit new residents. I personally observed that new residents were admitted with symptoms. I recall new residents coming into the facility coughing. I recall a man who came in coughing and with a feeding tube. He ended up being COVID positive. I also recall the facility admitting a new resident who was not isolated when admitted. She was placed in general population. I recall another resident had respiratory issues for nearly a month before her symptoms were taken seriously. Her roommate, who I really cared for, also became COVID positive. The roommate was moved to the 100 Hall, where we kept suspected COVID positive patients, until she died. Another patient that was doing well on the 200 Hall before COVID, also got COVID and subsequently died.

The first day that I was told to use a mask was on my shift was on Sunday, April 5, 2020. I recall an LPN handing out masks and giving us a paper bag and telling us to label the bag and put our mask in the bag for reuse on the next shift. I believe we were supposed to get one every week.

On Monday, April 6, I began to feel sick. I called into work Tuesday, April 7 and told management I did not feel well. They told me to take care of myself. I returned to work on Wednesday and Thursday, April 8 and 9, and worked 12-hour shifts. I had a hard time on those shifts and continued to not feel well. I reported symptoms on the log. I also indicated that I suspected I had been around someone exposed to coronavirus.

By Good Friday, April 10, I had lost my sense of taste and smell. My appetite went fast. I had chills, cough and flu-like symptoms. I felt horrible. It is a difficult feeling to describe. I did not have the energy to move. I did not have respiratory symptoms but my blood pressure kept bottoming out.

I called management to report I was sick. They told me that The Citadel was not accepting call-outs without a doctor’s note and that I was expected to report to work. I knew that many others had gotten sick and other staff was calling out, and the facility was understaffed. I did not return to work due to my symptoms.

On Monday, April 13, I went to my primary care doctor to report my symptoms. They referred me to the hospital, which tested me for coronavirus. On Wednesday, April 15, the lab confirmed that I was positive. I think I had symptoms seven to 10 days prior to my positive results.

One of the hardest parts of watching and experiencing all of this is knowing and loving the patients the way that I do and then watching as they died and died alone. I used my personal phone to help dying patients call their loved ones for the last time. We were not directed to call loved ones of the patients. I felt that was the right thing do do. 

Ben Finholt is the director of the Just Sentencing Project at N.C. Prisoner Legal Services.

Ben Finholt

Ben Finholt is used to fighting uphill battles. During non-COVID times he works on issues regarding long-term incarceration and tries to reduce maximum sentences for people convicted of committing crimes. 

In a sense, the work he’s doing now isn’t all that different: He’s reviewing post-conviction cases and trying to negotiate with prosecutors to get people out of prison. The stakes are just a lot higher now, since most of the clients he’s taking on are facing potential death behind bars. 

Finholt is the director of the Just Sentencing Project at N.C. Prisoner Legal Services, which is part of a coalition identifying incarcerated people who are more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19 if they contract it while in prison. 

He has spent the past six weeks working full-time on solely coronavirus litigation and advocacy. Public health officials have given grim predictions for those housed in overcrowded prisons, and Finholt is one of many people in North Carolina urging officials to heed their advice and reduce the population while there’s still time. 

“It would just be so tragic if a person in this situation passed away because they couldn’t get out of the way of the coronavirus,” Finholt said in a phone interview. “It’s not a perfect analogy, but if a wildfire was bearing down on Bertie Correctional, I don’t think we would all just say, ‘well, you know, we can’t just let people walk out; they committed crimes.’ That would not fly for me, certainly.

“This is not entirely different from that, you know, in the sense that we could release people from prison, and then they would no longer be in an environment where they are all on top of each other and there’s a shared ventilation system and you can’t get out of the way of the virus.”

So far, the only district attorney who’s worked with him on releasing people has been Satana Deberry in Durham. He continues to fight.

It’s not only Finholt’s coronavirus litigation work that sets him apart from the other attorneys and organizations doing similar work, but also the extra time he’s spending on returning every phone call and voicemail he gets from worried family members. 

They’re not his clients, but  they’re often desperate and looking for any help they can get, or any opportunity to direct their energy into making a difference.

He tries to take on as many cases as he can, pro bono, but he also offers advice and solutions to those he can’t help, whether it’s directing them to contact the prosecutor who handled their loved one’s case, urging them to reach out to the governor or helping them contact the parole commission. 

“There were several families where I was exchanging several emails and phone calls with where they were saying, ‘my loved one on the inside is having trouble breathing and I am scared to death, and I just don’t want them to die,’” Finholt said. “The legal work that we’ve been able to do has been challenging, but by far the most difficult part of everyday has been returning my voicemails.”

He also tries to remove some of the stigmatization they’ve experienced in seeking help for their loved ones.

“My general sense is that people [label incarcerated people by their crimes] because it makes it easier to keep a person in a cage for 50 years; if you just say this is a violent felon, then they’re not a person anymore,” Finholt said. “They’re not a person who may have been involved in their own suffering. … The conversations I have with family members is very much an attempt to let them know that there are people out there who are not putting their loved ones in a box and putting them in a label and forgetting about them.” Melissa Boughton

Tal Blevins, a restaurateur and co-owner of Machete in Greensboro (Photo courtesy of photographer Todd Turner)

Tal Blevins

Opening a restaurant is a gamble under the best of circumstances. When they opened Machete in Greensboro’s hip LoFi neighborhood in February, Tal Blevins and his wife, Nicole, did their best to stack the deck.

They had earned a hardcore audience with more than a year of private supper club events, held in their own home with a small staff. The cutting edge, modern-American dishes stood out in the area food scene.

Internet and media buzz translated to 700 bookings just 45 minutes after reservations opened.

“It was very measured,” Blevins said “We had a plan and it was going very well.”

What no one planned for: a pandemic that rocked the industry, shuttering many restaurants and transforming the rest into take-out-only operations immediately.

Blevins returned to Greensboro a few years ago after more than two decades as a tech writer and publisher in San Francisco. There, he was an early investor in Lazy Bear — a pop-up dinner party that became a two Michelin-star institution in the Mission District. 

Machete was built on that model. The quirky menu doesn’t even have dish names — just lists of carefully sourced ingredients. A warm and knowledgeable wait staff walking diners through each meticulously presented plate is part of the experience.

Could that transfer to take-out?

“We’d never even planned to do take out,” Blevins said.

Blevins gathered his staff of about 20 just one day before dine-in was halted in North Carolina to talk about making it happen.

“Our thing has always been elevated versions of childhood memories,” Blevins said. “ Things that people — especially in the South — are already used to, but done our way in a very elevated style.”

Ice cream sandwich made with fruity pebbles. Scallops with bacon-roasted potatoes. Fried chicken skewers with burnt lemon mayo.

“We knew we could do that — comfort food for people going through these times — as take-out, but done our way.”

The new menu is heavy on comfort — a double fried chicken sandwich to rival the Popeye’s hype, chicken and dumplings, salted malted brownies and giant glazed cinnamon rolls that sell out every Sunday brunch.

The shift hasn’t been easy. With fixed-costs like rent and insurance, the restaurant is losing money — but a lot less than if it had completely closed. They’re down to six employees and spend a lot of time creating the sort of super-sanitized, no-contact pickup process that keeps employees and customers safe. But Blevins said they’re in it for the long-haul. Even when restrictions are lifted people will be slow to return to restaurants for a while, Blevins said — and the virus will return in the cold and flu season.

For now, Machete is concentrating on making outstanding food for customers — and providing it free to local hospital and grocery store workers on the front-lines.

When life returns to some semblance of normal, Blevins said he believes the excitement of the first few weeks will be there again.

“And we’ll all need it,” he said. Joe Killian

Ansel Prichard

Some faces showing up at food pantries, soup kitchens and other partners agencies served by the Food Bank are familiar.

Ansel Prichard is the operations supervisor of the Durham branch of the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina, which serves Durham, Chatham, Orange, Granville, Person and Vance counties.

Others are new.

“They’ve lost their job, they’re on furlough, they’re not getting a paycheck and they need help,” Prichard said. “It really helps you understand that a lot of people are closer to food insecurity than they might have thought.”

There’s always been a need for food assistance, but Prichard has seen an uptick in demand since the COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses to close, putting thousands of area residents out of work. An estimated 30 million people in the U.S. have filed for unemployment benefits over the last six weeks. In North Carolina, 730,000 people sought benefits during that span.

One telltale sign of growing food insecurity is the increasing number of people showing up at the Food Bank’s distribution center on Angier Avenue in Durham, instead of visiting one of the partner agencies. Prichard said the walk-ins are mostly new clients unfamiliar with how the system works. “You have a really big increase in walk-ins with everything that’s going on.” Prichard said. “Of course, we give them food, then we direct them to our local agencies in the area.”

Prichard said contributions to the Food Bank have remained strong. “That’s fantastic because that’s what we rely on, that’s what keeps us operating,” Prichard said.

COVID-19 has also required the organization to adapt. Administrative staff members now work from home, but Prichard’s operations team, volunteer coordinators and volunteers still work on site. They practice safe social distancing, wear masks and limit the number of people allowed in the building to protect themselves from the contagious and sometimes deadly virus. “All of our branches have hired additional staff whose sole job is to clean and sanitize every surface — equipment, door handles, counters — anything that gets touched,” Prichard said. “That really goes a long way to provide a safe working environment, but also, knowing that that’s being done helps you feel better.”

The Food Bank also adopted policies to help employees better cope emotionally with the stress of working when the threat of contracting the coronavirus. “We try to keep the [work] hours as regular as possible and the Food Bank has provided opportunities to rotate staff on days off so that folks aren’t feeling overwhelmed,” Prichard said.

He said essential staff still on site receive bonus pay for each day worked. Staff members also receive a stipend for childcare.

“It’s an organization that really does try to take care of its employees by providing as many resources as possible to help employees financially, mentally and physically,” Prichard said. “We are an organization for the community, we work to help the community and I think we bring that same sentiment to our employees.”

Still, the fear of contracting the virus is present as staff and volunteers go about their work. “We talk very openly about that, just having an open and honest conversation about how we all are feeling about this, what can we do to alleviate some of that fear.” Prichard said. “I just don’t get a big sense of fear from myself or my staff. I think a lot of that comes from the fact that now more than ever they realize the importance of the work they do and are super determined to do what they can, being safe of course and taking necessary precaution.”

He said the organization’s response to the pandemic has made him proud. “It’s been really great to see the Food Bank step up as an organization and keep operating and keep supplying food to satisfy, not only our already existing obligations but the increased need that has arisen since the pandemic began,” Prichard said. — Greg Childress

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