Fulton Center settles OSHA lawsuit

GLOVERSVILLE — The Fulton Center for Rehabilitation and Healthcare recently reached a settlement agreement with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration over workplace violations related to coronavirus safety protocols and procedures. The nursing home was cited after a complaint was filed by the Civil Service Employees Association related to the death of a Fulton Center staff member from COVID-19 complications in May.

OSHA opened an investigation of the Fulton Center on May 22 after a union complaint was filed. According to a recent story from CSEA’s statewide publication, The Work Force, the case was opened after the union notified the regulatory agency of the death of Dennis Darby, a 31-year-old certified nursing assistant at the Fulton Center, from coronavirus complications at Albany Medical Center on May 21.

After filing the complaint, CSEA worked with OSHA to investigate whether conditions at the nursing home contributed to Darby’s exposure to and contraction of the virus.

The Fulton Center experienced a widespread outbreak of the coronavirus that began in late April and stretched into early June. The Fulton County Public Health Department reported 111 Fulton Center residents and 24 staff members tested positive for the coronavirus during that outbreak and that 24 of the infected residents passed away from COVID-19.

OSHA cited the Fulton Center for two serious violations on Oct. 29 for failure to determine employees’ ability to use respirators before fit testing or required use of respirators in the workplace and failure to ensure employees use tight-fitting facepiece respirators that have been fit tested prior to initial use.

The Fulton Center was fined $21,590.40 for the violations. According to OSHA, the violations were abated by the facility on Nov. 11 and informally settled with the regulatory agency on Jan. 29.

The Work Force reported that the results of the inspection by OSHA additionally found that nurses and CNAs at the facility providing direct care to coronavirus positive patients were required to share reusable and disposable gowns.

OSHA recommended that the Fulton Center take precautions to reduce employees’ risk of virus exposure by ensuring employees wear appropriate personal protective equipment and that the facility develop and implement a cleaning and disinfection protocol to ensure gowns are maintained in a sanitary condition.

The Fulton Center has agreed to follow the established safety protocols and workplace safety laws as part of the settlement reached with OSHA. Despite the settlement agreement, the inspection of the Fulton Center has not yet been closed by OSHA.

Fulton Center spokesperson Jeff Jacomowitz in a prepared statement issued Wednesday in response to a request for comment denied the claim that staff members were ever required to share isolation gowns.

“In the spring of 2020 while there was a national shortage of tests by the federal government, Fulton Center was working with regional educators on the proper ways of using PPE. Back then, the facility had two types of gowns, disposable and washable, and were never shared among staff. Today, only disposable gowns are being used and the facility has a strong supply, onsite and offsite,” stated Jacomowitz.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, these regional educators were at Fulton Center teaching the staff about proper usage of N95 masks, gowns usage, gloves and face shields. Fulton Center has implemented and complied to the required safety measures relating to PPE and fit testing for respirators. So today, like the spring, there has never been a shortage in PPE even nearly one year following the start of the pandemic,” the statement continued.

The spokesperson went on to describe Darby’s death and the death of all individuals from the coronavirus as tragedies.

“In May 2020, Fulton Center deeply mourned the passing of CNA Dennis Darby, one of our own. His death, being an employee of Fulton Center and at such a young age, affected everyone emotionally. Even by February 2021, many of the staff still have not gotten over his passing. As with his death, every passing to COVID-19 is a tragedy,” stated Jacomowitz.

Jacomowitz also described the guidelines from the state Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the Fulton Center follows regarding the use of PPE by employees, facility-wide testing twice a week after the first result of a coronavirus positive resident and screening at the entrance to the facility.

Despite these precautions, the facility is currently experiencing an outbreak that began in January and is now seemingly on the decline.

Following the coronavirus outbreak at the facility in the spring, the Fulton Center launched a COVID-19 reporting page on its website that is updated daily with statistics on in-house coronavirus cases. Those statistics are also submitted to the state Department of Health.

On Jan. 6, the Fulton Center reported active coronavirus infections among two residents and two staff members. At the height of the current outbreak, 38 residents and 30 staff members reportedly had active infections as reported by the Fulton Center on Jan. 21.

Today the Fulton Center is reporting active infections among eight residents and six staff members. As a result of the recent outbreak, the spokesperson stated that three residents have died from the coronavirus since Jan. 15; two individuals who passed away in-house and a third who died at the hospital.

“Our hearts and deepest sympathies go to their families and friends,” stated Jacomowitz.

Jacomowitz attributed the current outbreak to the post-holiday surge that has been broadly observed and said that the facility is regularly performing both traditional coronavirus testing and rapid testing to “get a hold of the virus” by identifying and isolating infected individuals in a separate ward in the facility.

“The facility, like most nursing and rehabilitation centers, has experienced a post-holiday outbreak,” stated Jacomowitz. “Fulton Center, like so many other skilled nursing facilities, continue to be blamed for the COVID-19 pandemic, when in fact, it’s everywhere. The front-line nurses have worked and continue to work to try to keep the virus away from the residents. It’s time to salute them, not to blame them.”

In a preventative step, the facility has begun administering the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to consenting residents and staff. To date, Jacomowitz estimated over 25 percent of residents and 21 percent of Fulton Center staff members have elected to receive the vaccine. Residents have received both doses of the two-shot vaccine, while staff members have so far received just their first vaccine doses.

Jacomowitz in mid-January had estimated approximately 47 percent of residents had elected to receive the coronavirus vaccine and had been administered their first doses, the spokesperson on Monday said that earlier number was either provided in error or was a miscommunication.

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