L+M Hospital employee dies of COVID-19
New London — Elva Graveline, a mother of two who constantly gushed about her three grandchildren, had dedicated 23 years of her life to caring for the sick at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital.
The 52-year-old certified nurse’s assistant, known at L+M as a patient care assistant, died Tuesday due to heart complications associated with COVID-19.
She was the first reported death of a hospital staff member in southeastern Connecticut, and her co-workers are devastated, said Connie Fields, an L+M employee and president of AFT Connecticut Local 5123, the health care union representing nearly 800 L+M employees. The group includes nurse’s aides, phlebotomists, food service employees, cleaning staff and secretarial positions.
Graveline’s death has heightened the concerns about the dangers that hospital staff face during the pandemic and led to a renewed call by the unions to do more to protect staff with better availability of personal protective equipment, or PPE.
Graveline, who lived with her husband in North Stonington, had been attending to as many as 10 COVID-19 patients per shift in the hospital’s “COVID-19 unit,” Fields said. She tested positive in April, took a turn for the worse on Monday and was hospitalized in the critical care unit at L+M when she died.
“She was a beautiful-spirited woman who has worked at the hospital since 1997 and has three beautiful grandchildren,” Fields said. “She loved her job. She loved her co-workers. She loved taking care of patients. You could see her smile coming down the hallway. She was one of the first to come in on her shift and one of the last to leave.”
Fields said staff remains frustrated by not only the policy of reusing PPE but the disparity in use of certain PPE, such as face shields offered to nurses and physicians but not nursing assistants who have numerous interactions with COVID-19 patients. She said the practice amounts to lowering of standards for one segment of health care workers, something she called “unforgivable behavior.”
Employees at both L+M and the Backus Hospital in Norwich earlier this month organized a petition to demand from corporate leadership adequate PPE, hazard pay and a paycheck when they are forced to quarantine. Hospital officials have said the concerns were being addressed.
But despite assurances from Yale New Haven Health that there is adequate PPE available, hospital employees and the unions continue to voice concerns about the extended reuse of PPE, such as gowns, face shields and N95 respirators, a practice that would have been strictly forbidden at the hospital prior to the pandemic. L+M had 20 COVID-19 patients as of Tuesday.
Yale New Haven Health, like other hospitals and health organizations during the pandemic, has followed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which states that N95 respirators can be reused on a limited basis during surges in a pandemic.
Dr. Patrick Kenney, supply chain medical director for Yale New Haven Health, said Wednesday that Yale New Haven's PPE practices meet and exceed CDC and state Department of Public Health guidelines. Despite work to prepare for the pandemic, which started in January, Kenney said the marketplace for PPE is “dramatically challenging,” and part of the reason such equipment is being reused for extended periods of time.
“We’re fortunate that we had a preexisting stockpile ... but given the enormous increase in demand and utilization of PPE and the constraints of the marketplace, its simply not possible to buy enough to meet needs,” he said.
As a result, Kenney said Yale New Haven has implemented the practice of extending use of respirators for entire shifts, rather than one per patient. Yale New Haven also “reprocesses” many of the used respirators by sending them for sterilization, along with gowns, for future use. One type of the four respirators used in the hospitals is being recirculated after it is sterilized.
At one point, Kenney said the “burn rate” for isolation gowns was 30,000 per day, unsustainable in the long term. He said Yale New Haven is working on a plan to use gowns that can be laundered. Respirators are being used at 30 times the normal rate, he said.
“We’re doing absolutely everything we can ... a huge amount of effort and expense to provide PPE to our staff,” Kenney said. “Yale New Haven Health has put an enormous amount of energy into protecting its workforce.”
Kenney said the rate of infection among staff, between 2% and 2.5%, is an indication of success since it does not exceed the state’s general population rate.
“There’s never been a time in our system during this crisis that we’ve run out of supplies,” he said.
L+M Hospital officials have offered sympathy and condolences to Graveline’s family and announced counseling resources would be available to staff through the Employee Assistance Program and chaplaincy program.
“We are devastated at the loss of one of our employees to the coronavirus. Any loss is one too many but one close to home is heartbreaking,” said Fiona Phelan, a spokeswoman for L+M.
Several ceremonies were being arranged at the hospital on what L+M President and Chief Operating Officer Patrick Green called “a very difficult day” in a message to hospital staff. “I know and recognize that this hurts and we are all saddened by the passing of our friend and colleague,” he said.
In a message to hospital employees, Fields said, “I will not rest until L+M does right by us, the employees that are sacrificing their lives.”
“'OUR LIVES MATTER’ no matter what L+M says. May 30th we will stand in solidarity for ELVA GRAVELINE, our sister,” she wrote.
A rally hosted by the four local AFT unions is scheduled for May 30 in New London, a call for the federal government to use the Defense Production Act to immediately start manufacturing "sufficient PPE."
Terry Meadows, a field representative for AFT Connecticut, said the union has raised concerns about the safety of employees since March, when the coronavirus outbreak was still in the early stages. “This is going to extremely impact the fear and concern that is already out there on a daily basis — the continued anxiety that they are not fully protected with the proper PPE,” Meadows said.
Early this month, Yale New Haven Health reported that about 600 of its 28,000 employees had tested positive for COVID-19 and quarantined for 14 days. Current numbers were not immediately available.