Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
New Jersey officials waged an aggressive, anti-mask campaign against nursing home employees & ambulance crews.
In March 2020, the world already knew nursing homes and COVID-19 were a deadly combination. Dozens of residents had perished in a nursing home in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland (see my previous post).
A March 18th report by the US Centers for Disease Control documented more than 100 infections at that home, and declared: “In the context of rapidly escalating COVID-19 outbreaks in much of the United States, it is critical that long-term care facilities implement active measures to prevent introduction of COVID-19.”
But rather than battening down the hatches, the executives in charge of New Jersey’s trio of government-run veterans’ homes were conducting a bizarrely aggressive campaign against employees and ambulance crews who tried to mask up.
Emails obtained by New Jersey’s Record newspaper show that, on March 11th, Elizabeth Schiff-Heedles, the CEO of the Menlo Park veterans’ home, emailed the CEOs of the Paramus and Vineland facilities. Ambulance crews had been asked to remove their masks within these facilities. In response, Virgo Medical Services had threatened to stop transporting residents to and from hospital.
“What should we do?” asked Schiff-Heedles. “Is this a fight we should have or allow virgo to wear masks?”
Allyson Bailey, Vineland’s CEO, thought masks should be permitted. But Paramus CEO Matthew Schottlander disagreed: “I don’t think they should wear masks…If they are healthy, they shouldn’t. If they are sick, then they should not be entering our facility.”
Despite a note from his doctor, a cook at Menlo Park was forbidden from wearing a mask on the job. A March 27 email reads, in part,
Came to work with a mask and was told to take it off. He said ok, and then he put it back on. Later I received the attached doctors note that states he has chronic asthma, and its recommended he wars [sic] a mask while at work. We are not allowing employees to wear a mask, so he is out of work. [bold added]
When someone else suggested the cook be allowed to return, since the kitchen was short staffed, CEO Schiff-Heedles replied: “If I do that then everyone will come to work with a doctor’s note.”
At staff meetings, Schiff-Heedles said masks would “frighten the residents,” and were unnecessary because the facility didn’t have any COVID-19 cases. Management allegedly gathered up all the surgical masks throughout the facility, but The Record reports some employees rebelled.
Shirley Suddoth-Lewis, a nurse who’d worked there for 36 years, also happened to be president of the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. She told journalist Scott Fallon: “We stashed some away. We saw patients getting sick. We saw what was on the news. We weren’t going to take our chances.”
Senior management’s opposition to masks was so strong, internal emails show, that a lawyer from New Jersey’s department of Veteran’s Affairs got involved. On March 26, Jared Doherty advised Schiff-Heedles:
we are going to draft essentially an order, ordering Shirley to neither wear masks or hand out masks and serve it on her. We were advised to use discipline if we must.
Another email reveals that, as a massive wave of death was bearing down upon them, those in charge were busy devising an official mechanism by which to fire staff for wearing masks:
We are going to start progressive discipline for mask insubordination. First offense oral counseling, second written warning, third Official reprimand, Fourth suspension. [bold added]
It’s worth noting the sharp contrast in the death toll at these three veterans’ homes. Vineland was led by CEO Bailey. She appears not to have been as adamantly opposed to masks as were her two colleagues. As of January 4th, 2021, a total of nine residents have died of COVID in her facility.
Compare that to the 189 residents who’ve died at Menlo Park and Paramus (combined). A nurse’s aide at each of those homes also succumbed to COVID.
Today, Bailey is the only one of the three CEOs who still has her job. Schiff-Heedles and Schottlander were dismissed in October.
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