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Nursing home workers remember those who died in their care

MIke Desmond

It was the symbolic power of flowers, for joy or for tragedy, that decorated a remembrance Thursday for 298 people who have died in area nursing comes during the COVID-19 crisis.

Members of SEIU Local 1199 are the workers in many of nursing homes. The union put on the remembrance near the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in MLK Park. The relatively small crowd showed up for the 298 carnations to be laid across part of the area near the bust.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News
Ceremony participants laid 298 carnations to represent the 298 people who died in local nursing homes from COVID-19.

Local 1199 organizer Marshall Bertram outlined the purpose of the event.

"Each of these flowers commemorates somebody that passed in Western New York in the last few months that lived in a nursing home. They're laid down not just with the intention of honoring them today, though, but tomorrow and the following day, by calling for reform in the nursing home industry and making sure that this atrocity never happens again," Bertram said.

Lincoln Memorial United Methodist Church Pastor George Nicholas said the death toll shows that the powerful don't see those who died as important. He spoke of the social and economic disparities behind the death toll.

"From mid-March to mid-May, where millions of people had lost their jobs and millions of people are suffering from being food insecure and the possibility of losing their homes," Nicholas said. "In that same time, the wealthiest in our society, their income has gone up $435 billion.

A voice from the crowd responded, "That ain't right."

Nicholas is running a county task for on racial disparities and how that ties into a COVID death rate higher than the black share of the county population.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News
Pastor George Nicholas told the small crowd the COVID-19 deaths reflect economic disparities.

CNA Ruth Johnston, who works at the St. Joseph Post-Acute Center caring for COVID-19 patients, was asked if people thought she was crazy to volunteer to work there.

"I also said you can get this walking from here to the store. Anywhere. And my calling always seems to be there for people," Johnston said. "I love helping people. So when this came along and I saw that a lot of people were so afraid of it, I said, why not? If somebody is ill and they need someone, I want somebody to care for them."

Union officials said they know some members caught the coronavirus in their work, but don't know if any of the members locally have died from the virus.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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