Maine Voices: Administration to blame for Barron Center staff shortage

I am writing to you to express my disappointment at your reporting of the existential crisis occurring at the Barron Center. While it is easy to put squarely the cause of the crisis on COVID, that is not whole accuracy. While the Barron Center was able to survive the COVID crisis, it may not be able to survive the crisis of leadership that our administration has presented to us.

For the past two years staff have been trained to work in increasingly brutal conditions. While Kristen Dow, director of Health and Human Services, makes the point in your article that the Barron Center is still meeting staffing minimums, she fails to acknowledge how that is being accomplished. CNAs and nurses at the Barron Center have been asked for too long to work incessantly.

Staff are routinely asked to work extra, to work longer, to come in on their days off. That ask is always there. The personal sacrifices that the CNAs and nurses at the Barron Center have made to keep the place running and the residents safe has been enormous and all-encompassing. When they do come in to work they are understaffed. Nurses are often working both as a nurse and a med tech simultaneously, or working multiple units at once while also helping the CNAs when they can. The conditions at the Barron Center risk not only patient safety but also the licenses of the superhero nurses who work there.

Management has been slow to respond to this crisis. In fact, it is only being responded to now as the acute crisis that it is because, after administrator Rebecca Gagnon put in her notice to move on to the Maine Veterans Home as their new COO, nurse managers went directly to Dow to alert her to the conditions that people have been working in for far too long.

Finally Dow halted new admissions to allow the census of residents to drop in the building so that eventually we can condense units and make better use of the staff we have. That, however, will take time to have an effect. I have Dow to hire travel nurses and CNAs, as we need staff now. Starting this weekend I am told that our staffing will actually be below state minimums, that the outlook for next week is even worse, and that even as I write this there is no plan on how we will close that very significant gap.

Many of the staff at the Barron Center have worked there for years if not decades. Many envisioned working there to retirement. I can attest, having worked at the Barron Center previously as a CNA and now as a per diem nurse and supervisor, that the CNAs and nurses of the Barron Center demonstrate a caring and commitment to the residents and the mission that is both heartfelt and rare . But it is my understanding based on what I have heard from my colleagues that it is the poor leadership by Rebecca Gagnon that has pushed these people to leave as it became apparent that no help was coming, that the brutal conditions under which they worked were acceptable and the new normal.

The average age of the CNAs is somewhere in the 50s. Many of them have health conditions. One CNA I spoke to who worked all through COVID, though he has left recently, was the recipient of an organ transplant, making him very high risk if he brought COVID. These people did not leave when COVID was fresh, when the building was filled with it, when there was no vaccine or even testing, when they hadn’t yet received adequate PPE. But they are leaving now.

The crisis is not COVID – it’s the brutal, uncaring management. We are grateful that Kristen Dow is engaging with us now and authentically working to save the Barron Center, but neither Gagnon nor Dow deserves to have their role in the unfolding of this crisis obscured from the public. They are public servants. The public has a right to know.

— Special to the Press Herald


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