Hackensack Meridian fined for COVID-19 mask violations at nursing home
A Hackensack Meridian nursing home was cited by federal regulators for failing to give its nursing staff the proper masks to treat COVID-19 residents near the height of the pandemic, according to documents released Thursday.
A Hackensack Meridian executive said Thursday night they will challenge the fines and violations levied by the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
The violations occurred in late March at The Harborage, a 245-bed facility next to Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen where at least 25 residents died from coronavirus complications.
OSHA The Occupational Health and Safety Administration fined the facility more than $28,000 for five violations outlined in a Sept. 4 letter made public Thursday by the Health Professionals & Allied Employees union.
"As a result of this callous conduct by Hackensack Meridian Health, health care workers, including HPAE members, were exposed to the virus, became infected and sickened by the virus," said Barbara Rosen, the union's first vice president.
Dr. Daniel Varga, chief physician executive for Hackensack Meridian Health, said he vehemently opposes the union's characterization.
"We believe that the safety standards that we had to adopt in this unprecedented global pandemic absolutely protected our team members," he said.
Rosen said the violations were the first of their kind in the nation. An OSHA representative could not be reached for comment.
OSHA said the five violations occurred on March 23 and 24. The most serious violations said the home required workers to use surgical masks to care for COVID-19 patients and did not provide more effective N95 masks or the equivalent. Workers were not trained on how to properly wear them or whether they fit correctly on their face.
Two union members who worked at the adjacent Palisades Medical Center died in the pandemic: Nancy Martell, a patient care technician, and Alfredo Pabatao, who transported patients, including those between The Harborage and the medical center.
Staff at The Harborage told NorthJersey.com in April that the facility had run out of N95 masks. They said they never received eye protection, which is necessary to prevent the virus from entering a person's mucous membranes. The homes lacked supplies for "universal masking" of staff and residents, workers said, when it became a system-wide policy.
Hackensack Meridian saw a combined 158 residents at all of its nursing homes die from COVID-19 in the spring, but said it had required masks before state mandates and was able to add 250 nurses and more than 200 nursing aides at the height of the surge to relieve infected staffers.
Rosen said Hackensack Meridian still needs to establish safety protocols for health care workers and instruct them on "how to properly and safely navigate COVID-19 care of patients." The union represents 175 employees at The Harborage.
Scott Fallon covers the environment for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news about how New Jersey’s environment affects your health and well-being, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.