This Pittsburgh nurse works on the front lines. Here’s what she needs from Harrisburg. | John L. Micek

Artinese Knight, a registered nurse at Charles Morris Nursing Home in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill speaks during an online event put on by the office of Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny. (Screen Capture)

Artinese Knight is a registered nurse. And she worries about lots of stuff: Whether she’ll have the personal protective equipment she needs when she shows up for work. If she can offer the care to her patients that they need and deserve. And, if she gets sick, whether she can afford to take the time off from work to stay safe.

Knight’s concerns aren’t uncommon to a lot of health care workers in the age of COVID-19. But her vantage point is: Knight is a nurse at Charles Morris Nursing Home in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

And if you’ve been paying attention to the headlines, then you know that, thanks a perfect storm of aged and infirm residents, underlying conditions and a disastrously dumb policy decision, nursing homes are now the epicenter of the outbreak.

“At a lot of facilities, we never started out with a lot of what we needed,” Knight said Thursday during an online chat organized by Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa’s, D-Allegheny, office. ” … When [COVID-19] came it magnified what we’d been going through. Long-term care has been the forgotten population. Our elders came first and somehow they get kicked back to the last.”

She continued, “We don’t have the proper PPE. To begin with I would like to see better PPE. And more time off … so that people don’t have to choose between working or staying home and not paying the bills.”

There has been some help. Her employer, she said, has rented uniforms and made sure workers had a place to eat lunch and safely unwind while respecting social distancing guidelines. The home is also unionized, which has helped too. Knight serves on the executive board.

Through midday Thursday, the state Department of Health had confirmed 65,392 cases of COVID-19 in all 67 counties, with 4,869 fatalities. According to state data, there were 14,113 cases of COVID-19 among residents of nursing and personal care homes, and 2,306 among staff at 570 facilities in 44 counties. Nursing home deaths have accounted for 3,234 of all confirmed fatalities, state data shows.

Nursing and personal care homes have been a political and policy brush fire for state officials, who have faced justifiable criticism for requiring the facilities to accept medically stable COVID-19 patients, despite clear warnings about the health risks those patients posed to medically compromised elderly people.

State Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine has faced calls for her resignation over the state’s management of the pandemic, as well as for revelations that she moved her mother from such a home even as the state forced the facilities to accept those patients.

This week controversy flared anew amid reports by the Philadelphia Inquirer and other outlets that the agency had errors in its reporting of nursing home cases.

Lawmakers in the state Senate have moved to try to help nursing home workers, approving a $507 million funding measure to assist nursing and long-term care homes. The bill, paid for through federal CARES Act money, is now before the state House.

On Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., introduced legislation along with U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., that would provide $20 billion to help states, nursing homes and intermediate care facilities contain the spread of COVID-19. It would fund the purchase of personal protective equipment and testing supplies and would provide nursing home workers with premium pay, overtime and other benefits.

U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-4th District, has joined with colleagues to sponsor a companion bill in the U.S. House, Capital-Star Washington Bureau Chief Robin Bravender reported Thursday.

The pandemic has left frontline workers such as Knight in a both logistically difficult — and heart-breaking — position.

“The difficult part is not being able to physically comfort them,” she said. “You can only spend so much time with those patents, when you’re used to giving them a lot of time and [making] sure they’re comfortable.”

With visits banned, Knight said she and her colleagues work hard to keep residents in touch with family through regular telephone and FaceTime conversations. Even so, she said nurses become surrogate family to residents who may not have families of their own, or feel isolated from loved ones because of pandemic-prompted restrictions.

“We take care of a population of people that we do a lot of loving on. We’re hugging, kissing. We’re their family. To be able not to do that [show physical affection] has caused these people be depressed because they don’t have their family visiting. Has caused a lot of them to sink into depression,” she said.

“They’re feeling isolated. They see you in mask and gloves, it becomes scary,” she continued. “It sets some of them back a little bit. What they want is to be assured that they’re being taken care of, and that we’re reachable, and able to get their families, and be able to be loved. Sometimes you’re there for their last breath.”

If she were to ask lawmakers for anything, Knight said she’d ask for help with more PPE and paid sick leave that would allow her and her co-workers to take care of themselves even as they take care of others.

“I want everyone to be safe, to be careful out there,” she said. “We hope, moving forward, we don’t find ourselves in this situation again.”

John L. Micek
A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press