By HARRISONBURG WORKERS’ TRIBUNE
MAY 26—Accordius Health (better known locally by its previous name, Avante) is a privately-owned nursing home facility in Harrisonburg, Va., owned by The Portopiccolo Group, (Accordius Health is the name of both the facility in Harrisonburg and the North Carolina-based regional subsidiary LLC owned by The Portopiccolo Group.)
Accordius is a nursing home facility that accepts Medicaid, the income-based public health insurance program. Medicare, the public health insurance program available to all seniors, so seniors and other people in need of full-time nursing care who cannot afford out-of-pocket costs and rely on Medicaid to cover it are often limited in their choice of nursing homes.
A COVID-19 outbreak in the Accordius Health nursing home in Harrisonburg killed, including retired nurse Mary Domzalski, retired UVA Medical Center housekeeper Alberta Barbour, and retired produce farmer and drywall installer Jim Southerly. The outbreak infected a total of 81 residents and 12 of the 35 (or around 34%) of the nursing home’s staff. Accordius Health in Harrisonburg is also located within close proximity to several high-density, working-class residential neighborhoods such as The Mill and University Place, and it is unknowable what impact this had on community spread in Harrisonburg.
On May 1, the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record (DNR) reported that “[s]everal employees, who requested anonymity on fears of being fired, said dozens of residents flocked into the hallway to participate in [a] dance”. According to the DNR, the workers were alarmed that social distancing among residents “wasn’t good enough with dozens of residents in hallways”, and that residents were not provided with PPE, a claim the Daily News-Record confirmed with Facebook photos of the dance event within the facility.
Accordius management excused the fact that they had deliberately corralled elderly residents together without PPE (and ignored the concerns of workers in the process) by releasing a public statement that read “[s]ocial distancing has challenged our staff to become very creative to incorporate our resident’s [sic] love of music and dancing into our activities, but [the staff] hit [this] dance party out of the ballpark.” (One would think that a multimillion-dollar company could rise to the “challenge” of providing PPE for residents!)
Mary Domzalski’s daughter-in-law told the DNR, “It sickens me … It’s like running cattle through a slaughterhouse.” Alberta Barbour’s daughter said “[t]he nursing home failed us.”
The same DNR article reports that “[i]n March 2019, the facility was cited for 22 violations, including failing to provide and implement an infection prevention and control program. The facility was fined roughly $13,000.”
This is in keeping with other reports of Accordius Health’s conduct across the country. On April 21, WBTV in Salisbury, North Carolina that the family of a resident of The Citadel-Salisbury, an Accordius Health-owned facility in Salisbury, has a lawsuit against the company for “fail[ing] to track the virus as it grew and spread and did not take proper steps to protect [residents] from the pandemic.” (For more information, is an eyewitness account from a doctor at Citadel who came forward. There are striking similarities between what occurred at Citadel and what happened here at Accordius in Harrisonburg.)
One of the workers, certified nursing assistant Kanesha Hamilton, who came forward to the local media about the outbreak, went on the public record. The DNR reported that “[o]n April 13, a concerned employee, Kanesha Hamilton, told the Daily News-Record there was an outbreak at the facility. She also voiced concerns of the dance party and lack of proper PPE.”
Kanesha Hamilton made a public Facebook post on April 14, stating: “I’m going to speak my peace on this one time & one time ONLY. I’m a mandated reporter. Something we all vow to do when working in healthcare. I’m to report negligence of any sort when people’s lives are at stake. I will not say sorry. I will not apologize or feel bad nor will I sweep the facts under the rug. I don’t care about being the bad guy when it comes to the lives of the people I take care of & the amazing women I work with one of whom is now positive for covid.. admitted & fighting for her life. 2 others + & are trying to recover & numerous other results of the rest pending. IF this entire ordeal meant my position SO BE IT! Morally.. ethically I did what I felt was necessary when asked & with that I have peace!”
On May 12, Hamilton wrote: “What’s sad an disheartening to me about this entire covid out break within my former facility is that I have been what seems to me “punished” for caring too much about my former co workers … & former residents , who were NOT just that in my eyes but more so grew to be FAMILY. Everytime the conversation is brought up it hits a little different … takes a inch more. Defending the girls I work with from being passed blame on the virus within literally cost me my job. I could have respected the situation if I got to at least speak my peace about it. If I was responded to back or at least was told what I was terminated for & or was I terminated at all & on what legal grounds. No closure. No response. No nothing. That wasn’t just a “job” or a “pay check” to me … those are an will forever be my residents & Some of the most amazing women I’ve ever got the pleasure of working with. Love y’all forever.”
On April 15, Hamilton made another public Facebook post mourning the loss of her friend Jim Southerly, a resident of the facility killed by the outbreak.
It should be obvious to anyone with a heart and a mind that Hamilton acted out of ethical conscience and out of immense concern for the residents she cared for, for her co-workers, and for the health of Harrisonburg’s population at large, at great risk of sacrifice to her own livelihood. It’s worth emphasizing that Hamilton is also the mother of two young children.
It’s also clear from Hamilton’s accounts, and from her role and the role of her coworkers in blowing the whistle on this story, that she and other local Accordius Healthcare workers (contrary to Accordius’ absurd PR claims) do not share blame with management, but on the contrary, acted in all earnest effort at their disposal to stop the outbreak.
But there is a part of this story that hasn’t been fully reported. Accordius Healthcare retaliated against Kanesha Hamilton for her act of bravery.
On April 10, the outbreak within the facility had been internally confirmed, but the workers were not told. The next day, April 11, all but three of the workers in Hamilton’s unit had fevers. This would be Hamilton’s last day working at Accordius. On April 12, Hamilton was tested for COVID-19. On April 15 her test came back negative. She asked about returning back to work and did not get a response.
On April 13, the reporting on a possible COVID-19 outbreak in Accordius, and publicly identifying Hamilton as the whistle-blower, hit the presses. The DNR reached out to Hamilton after she had publicly spoken out about the outbreak and defended her coworkers on the comments section of their website. In the article, Hamilton said “[a]ll of this could have been prevented … [w]e told them over and over and over that we didn’t feel comfortable working there. I’ve never been in the dark so much. It was like we’re figuring it out as we go.” In the same article, Hamilton told the DNR that most of the staff had fallen ill and that she had been unable to see her children for a week due to her symptoms.
On April 17, corporate requested that she needed to take a retest, and she complied.
On the weekend of the 17th-18th, Accordius workers received official confirmation of what they (and the public) already knew; there was a COVID-19 outbreak in the facility. They did not receive this information from Accordius management, but from a doctor who worked for the JMU Health Center. Hamilton told the Harrisonburg Workers’ Tribune that she and other workers were instructed by Accordius management not to tell the residents or their family about the outbreak, as that was the responsibility of corporate. Accordius workers were led to believe that corporate would do so. Hamilton questioned why Accordius was not reporting the outbreak to the public, and she was told this was the responsibility of the Health Department. We have no reason to believe that we would have ever gotten the full truth of the matter were it not for the actions of Hamilton, her co-workers, and the Daily News-Record writers who reported on the story.
On April 19, Hamilton messaged the nursing director of Accordius in Harrisonburg informing her that someone from corporate told her she would be able to return to work on the 25th, but that she was unable to get a hold of the manager in charge of scheduling. Hamilton told her nursing director that if she was terminated, she needed to know so she could file for unemployment. Her director messaged her back that day, informing her that they would need a copy of her negative COVID-19 retest and that she would need to be symptom free for three days without medication in order to return. Hamilton promptly replied, informing the director she would call the hospital and get a copy of the retest results. Hamilton texted the director back the next day, informing them that her retest also came back negative.
On April 20, Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed wrote a message to her Facebook friends saying “It is with a heavy heart that we learned tonight of the devastating loss of life at Accordius Health due to COVID-19. Words cannot express the sorrow that this virus has brought, and my heart goes out to the family, friends and loved ones of those who passed. I pray tonight that the staff with Accordius Health, the Virginia Department of Health, and Sentara RMH who are working to prevent further loss of life in our community have the strength to continue forward, and I ask that we all keep them in our thoughts and prayers.” Reed’s statement made no mention of Accordius’ active role in causing the COVID-19 outbreak in their facility, or the role Hamilton and her co-workers played as whistle-blowers in this case. To our knowledge, few if any local civic officials have publicly condemned Accordius’ actions or recognized Kanesha Hamilton’s courage.
When the Harrisonburg Workers’ Tribune spoke to Hamilton on May 12, over three weeks after her April 19 conversation with the nursing director, she said she had not heard a response back from the director or from corporate as to when she could return to work. Hamilton attempted to call her supervisors multiple times and her calls were ignored. Hamilton said she had filed for unemployment on April 20 and had received nothing. A coworker informed her that Accordius was denying multiple workers’ unemployment claims and using a hiring agency to deny full-time workers their hours.
On May 13, Hamilton informed the Harrisonburg Workers’ Tribune that she had been denied unemployment because Accordius made false claims to the Virginia Employment Commission that she had quit. On May 14, Hamilton e-mailed the Virginia Employment Commission evidence that she had not quit.
Hamilton did not hear back from Accordius until May 18, by which point she had already gotten another nursing job. Accordius told her she could reapply for her job. Hamilton informed them that she never resigned from her position, and pointed out that Accordius had been denying her unemployment claims, at which point Hamilton was told that Accordius would continue to deny her claims now she was offered her position back.
The facts speak for themselves. Not only did Accordius directly cause a COVID-19 outbreak that murdered 21 of our elders and infected a dozen of their workers, they also attempted to cover it up. Not only did they take Kanesha Hamilton off the schedule, retaliating against her for fulfilling her legal responsibility as a mandated reporter, they went the extra mile of falsifying claims to the Virginia Employment Commission. They stole food out of the mouths of Kanesha Hamilton’s children for doing the right thing and protecting the lives of the residents she cared for, her coworkers, and the general public. Because of this, because she was a good person who took the responsibilities of her job seriously, Kanesha Hamilton’s family of three went a month without any income.
Hamilton’s experience is not atypical. There has been lots of talk lately of essential workers being “heroes.” Sentara RMH (our local hospital that was bought out by a that pays its CEO millions of dollars a year) expresses this sentiment locally with placards around town, saying, “heroes work here”. What is a hero? Heroes don’t lower their heads and follow orders in the face of injustice. Kanesha Hamilton is a true working-class hero and we all need to stand up and follow in her footsteps before the capitalist response to this pandemic murders even more of us.
Even before this pandemic, the private healthcare system in the United States killed tens of thousands of workers a year. The number of nursing workers who have died in the United States because of the COVID-19 pandemic is unknown. In the age of COVID-19, workers need free, universal healthcare. This is a question of life-or-death, and an impossibility under U.S. capitalism, where pharmaceutical, health insurance, and private health-care company lobbyists spend billions of dollars preventing it. But even if we saw the nationalization of the payer-end of the healthcare system, pharmaceutical companies and private hospitals would still profit off of the commodification of healthcare and the exploitation of healthcare workers.
Under capitalism, it is the socialized labor of nurses and other health-care workers that create the medical marvels we take for granted. It is the socialized labor of food production, transportation/distribution, grocery store, and restaurant workers that make sure we are fed. It is the socialized labor of manufacturing, transportation/distribution, and retail workers that gives us the amenities of modern civilization. It’s because of the socialized labor of education workers that we can even read and write articles such as this one. It’s the socialized labor of construction, municipal infrastructure, janitorial, grounds-keeping, and public transit workers that we even have things like buildings and roads. The great toiling majority does the labor that gives us an abundant modern society, and this great majority lives from paycheck to paycheck, sometimes going hungry, so that a small minority of capitalists can accumulate millions or billions of dollars in profits. They say we live in a democracy but the majority of workers do not have any democratic control over the place where they spend eight, twelve, sometimes sixteen hours a day, and as we see in Kanesha Hamilton’s case, this often has deadly results.
Throughout history, elders have been respected and revered as a source of intergenerational wisdom, but under capitalism, elderly workers are cordoned off away from the rest of society and left to die. Once our bodies are used up from a lifetime of our backbreaking labor that the capitalists exploit and profit from, we’re no longer of any use to them. A relaxed and comfortable old age is a reward for a life well lived, and having the wisdom of our elders is something that enriches all of our lives. But the capitalists are happy to rob the workers of this. They’re perfectly content to let the COVID-19 crisis kill off our elders to streamline their system of profit. This attitude is best exemplified by Affordable Care Act architect and Trump administration healthcare advisor Ezekiel Emanuel when “[t]hese people who live a vigorous life to 70, 80, 90 years of age—when I look at what those people ‘do,’ almost all of it is what I classify as play. It’s not meaningful work. They’re riding motorcycles; they’re hiking. Which can all have value—don’t get me wrong. But if it’s the main thing in your life? Ummm, that’s not probably a meaningful life.”
Let’s fight for a society where we have all the time in the world to do nothing but play, and aren’t being murdered by “meaningful work”.
Let’s all follow the example of Kanesha Hamilton and stand up and finally put a stop to these preventable, meaningless deaths.