By Gabriel Pietrorazio
“They were my friends,” Bill “Beard” Corino said. “Those people became my friends.”
As a maintenance worker and driver, Corino spent more than two-hours each day, three times a week in one-on-one scenarios with residents at the Ontario Center for Rehabilitation and Healthcare in Canandaigua while driving them to their dialysis appointments.
He did it all on his own, without an aide by his side, bringing residents down from the building, pushing their wheelchairs from behind, loading them onto the bus at noon – as he always had ever since he started his position back in April of last year.
But then the pandemic hit.
For Corino, safety was always first, even if Ontario Center did not establish any written procedures for transporting patients.
In his spare time, he researched Center for Disease Control guidelines and New York State mandates amid the coronavirus pandemic in an effort to keep his passengers safe from start to finish while in his care.
“I put basically my own protocol together, did my research, and whatever I needed to make them safe, and keep myself safe, I put together and I made them go by it, or I wouldn’t transport,” he said.
With a box of masks, bottles of hand sanitizer, and two types of sanitizer wipes, he stored them inside his vehicle while transporting residents from Tuesday through Saturday.
All seven of his passengers were wheelchair bound, even though he requested for aides to join him on multiple occasions.
But virtually in all cases, these select patients did not qualify for aides, according to Corino.
“If one went with me then that would be one, they took off the floor,” he explained.
Each time he transported patients, he masked them, as he clicked their seatbelts in before their lengthy journey to Bay Creek Dialysis Center in Webster, which was an hour-long ride one-way.
“I sanitized the entire bus down after everybody I transported, everybody, because I didn’t want to take a chance and had someone be on there that I knew was positive, and then bring someone on that wasn’t,” he shared.
Each trip, Corino loaded and unloaded everyone his own, bringing them to their dialysis appointments and then back to the facility, even admitting that he situated them comfortably back in their rooms.
“I had two ladies that I would pick up and it was late in the day it was after six and then we’d get back in. They’re on the same floor and I will take one around, get her in there and move around her tray over to her so she could eat her dinner, and it’s same with the other one. I always made sure that they were in their rooms,” Corino said.
Although he would not help them out of their chairs because he was not certified to do so, he still lent a helping hand almost any other way possible.
He protected his passengers not just because he needed to since it was his professional responsibility, but because he actually wanted to. He desired to treat them like his parents.
Corino, a 52-year-old can no longer say that his parents are around, but if they were housed in a facility like Ontario Center, he hopes that someone would treat them with the same level of care and respect that he has exhibited toward his friends.
None of the aforementioned precautions and protocols were established by Ontario Center – it was Corino’s resourcefulness all along.
And yet, his own resolve was simply not enough to save them. What followed next was considered “heartbreaking,” as he put it.
The seven, whom he was entrusted to transport to dialysis appointments started to slowly pass away, all of whom tested positive for COVID-19.
Six of the seven passed. In the end, they are all gone, except for one who is currently recovering.
In this short timeframe, Corino personally knew 6 out of the 13 total deaths at Ontario Center, of which 11 were from the county itself and accounting for amassing a third of the total number of COVID-19 deaths.
Often he still recounts some of the final moments together with whom who called his dear friends.
“One day you’re coming down the elevator and I heard him cough. It’s a very distinct cough and I said something to the receptionist, and he didn’t have a facial mask. Everybody that I transported, I always put a mask on them, and he coughed all the way there and all the way back and I told him, I said we need to get him tested with because I know he’s got it and then I left,” Corino remembered.
A couple weeks later, he found out that this patient did in-fact contract COVID-19 and subsequently passed away.
Another patient tested positive as well but was asymptomatic “and then subsequently died during the night,” according to Corino.
One patient’s memory in particular stood-out to Corino, a woman whom he “transported for a very long time.”
“The very first one that was exposed, we lost fairly quickly. She went to the hospital, came back and then went back and didn’t make it,” he stated.
A repeat resident in her own right, Corino had got to know her as she went in and out of their rehab services twice.
“I transported her the whole time she was there. She was a very nice lady. I had countless conversations with her on the bus. Her husband would meet us wherever we were going, sometimes we’d even ride along,” Corino aid.
Soon after her passing, the husband of the deceased spouse contacted Corino by calling his cell phone, extending his gratitude to him for how he treated his wife while under his care in her final days since he could not see her himself.
“I actually had a conversation with him, he finally contacted the receptionist there and got my phone number and called me just to chat and let me know that he appreciated everything that I did for his wife,” Corino recalled.
He knew that this cohort of COVID-19 confirmed cases were all carriers of the death-inducing virus, and so did Administrator Rebecca “Becky” Butler.
Corino was assigned to drive seven COVID-19 positive residents to dialysis appointments, and he had no objections to assisting them, but he demanded to do it his own way.
“To be fair, I had what I needed on the bus because I flat out refused to do it unless I did,” he stated. “It was still cold out. You can’t put someone in a metal box with the heat blowing germs around. So, I told them, Look, I’m not going to drive unless I have the proper equipment.”
Despite Butler being aware that Corino was expected to come in physical contact with seven COVID-19 positive residents, as his responsibilities stipulated – this consideration became irrelevant to her.
Still, no precautions were remotely contemplated. No action plans were prepared for him.
Instead, he was expected to load each patient onto his bus and only given one basic facial mask, and a plastic bag.
“We were given we were given one mask and a plastic bag and said this is what you have to use, I had one that I had missed for almost two weeks. You know, and the trouble with that is moisture is a breeding ground for the virus. Putting it in a piece of plastic is keeping moisture in,” he said.
Corino even claims that Butler penned his name on the back of the mask that was handed to him by management.
Clearly, these masks are not intended to be reused – but that was all he was given: one mask and a plastic bag to store it in for the duration of two-weeks.
For nearly five weeks straight he carried-out and surpassed his occupational duties until his cardiologist stepped in, insisting that he must stop working at the facility due to a preexisting health condition.
On April 13th, Corino gave his final notice, stating that a doctor’s note has barred him from returning to work for the foreseeable future and Butler granted his request immediately.
Weeks later, he received a letter in the mail on June 8th, which was originally delivered to a prior address, one that he had not lived at in two years.
His resignation was granted, even though he did not ask for one. Rather, Corino suggests that his resignation was forced upon him – and now, he does not care about returning to Ontario Center or the industry at all for that matter.
Instead, he just wants the truth to be heard about the current conditions at Ontario Center for Rehabilitation and Healthcare amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“I don’t care if I get my job back,” he stated.
“Out of everybody that I closely worked with, I think I was the only one that didn’t get it. Everybody else tested for it and then ended-up positive for it.” – Bill “Beard” Corino
Working conditions were concerning to say the least, and to such an extent that several employees simply walked-out on the company.
Connie Helker, a former front desk receptionist and housekeeper at Ontario Center is one of those employees that decided to stay at home due to working conditions.
Helker, who is involved with Ontario ARC came forward to FingerLakes1.com after she became the first employee at the facility to contract COVID-19, earning the moniker “COVID Connie” among some peers.
Leaving her post effectively on March 30th, she sought to stay at home to heal and protect other patients at the rehab center.
The following day, she visited UR Medicine Thompson Health and tested positive for COVID-19.
With an expansive preexisting health condition history, including two encounters with cancer – it was simply unsafe for her to return back to Ontario Center at this time after recovering from the virus.
Helker was not cleared to return to work until April 17th, but she decided to return after feeling pressured by personnel on-site.
Helker alleges that Ontario Center employees specifically Director of Human Resources Erin Barber were “badgering COVID-19 positive employees to return back to work” due to a shortage of staffing at the facility, even insisting asymptomatic COVID-19 positive employees to resume their occupational responsibilities or be threatened with possible termination.
The environment became coercive, to such an extent that she eventually went back to serve as the front desk receptionist for one day on the weekend of April 26th, which she soon found-out to be her final date of employment at the company.
Like Corino, Helker received a similar letter in the mail three days later on April 29th, stating that she decided to not return to work as a housekeeper after she was cleared by medical professionals.
This letter outlined the justifications for the forceful termination of her housekeeping position at Ontario Center.
Rather than risking another encounter with COVID-19, she sought to sit back at home and wade out the pandemic until the situation subsided.
It was Helker’s personal choice to remain at home to protect herself from getting contaminated once again while in the line of duty.
She considered the chances for recontamination highly likely based on the personal experiences that she witnessed while working at Ontario Center during the pandemic.
In Corino’s eyes, Ontario Center has been ill-equipped from the start to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic among patients and employees alike.
Ontario Center hired contracts for nine-months, many of whom came from Louisiana to staff the facility, but when the state’s Department of Health stepped in, mandating a 14-day quarantine for all workers – this became the final straw for them.
“But at one point our building was a complete COVID site for basically every floor, both floors every hall. Every wing had COVID-19 positive people in quarantine. In fact, the entire staff was put on a 14-day quarantine through the Department of Health and we were only allowed to go to work and home. we couldn’t go anywhere else because we’re all exposed. I was upstairs and there was one of the cleaning girls that was going in and out of the rooms and she was wearing a regular mask and I asked her where her N-95 was, and she said, somebody took it off my cart. I don’t have one, and I told her, don’t go into those rooms without it because you’re going to get sick. I got her a new one the next day. She quit. She never came back,” he recalled.
“When the quarantine hit for the employees, they all hopped a plane and went home and never came back. I mean, I can’t tell you how many aides walked off the site,” he continued.
It was shortly after that moment when his cardiologist for 15-years strictly advised him to not return to work at Ontario Center, saying, “And that’s when I was when my doctor removed me from work centers as dangerous.”
At least three out of his four supervisors caught COVID-19 and, according to Corino.
Helker substantiated the claims that Corino had brought forth by recounting similar scenarios that she endured.
During her final days of employment in April, she admitted to not being able to find a single box of basic facial masks on any of the carts.
“Trying to find a mask is like digging for gold,” she said.
In addition to manning the front desk, Helker served as a floater and her cart was not stocked with the proper equipment to enter rooms as a housekeeper as well.
While staff administration passed along updated guidelines from New York State about how nursing homes and rehab facilities were supposed to operate during the pandemic, no formal meetings or any written action plans were ever implemented, according to Beard and Helker.
Aside from receiving the mask and plastic bag, Beard claims that staff were forced to reuse yellow gowns claiming, “This is not sanitary.”
Before Corino left Ontario Center in mid-April, he assisted the facility with conducting temperature tests and vetting staff by asking them precautionary questions at the front desk.
Ontario Center has stated on their website that “everyone, including the staff, is screened for possible symptoms and potential exposure to the disease in order to prevent contact with residents and staff” before entering the building.
Prior to April 13th, no COVID-19 test kits were used on staff since testing was exclusively done for patients, according to Corino.
Although later admitting that he credited the center for adhering to routine testing, this procedure came with its own set of challenges and limitations.
“That they did stand by and that they did it right, and many times I sat and checked temps because somebody had to be spacing from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. You can’t expect one person to sit at the desk develop once a time, seven days a week and work.”
Often times Helker remembered walking to the front desk around that same time slot, claiming that no staff were posted at the desk to conduct temperature tests and the mandated questioning.
Despite asking the right questions and issuing temperature checks, Corino alleges that the virus festered upon frontline medical workers throughout the entire facility.
“The receptionist, her son was in activities, and he would cover the desk. He ended up with it. Our housekeeping supervisor, she ended up with it. Several of the housekeepers ended up with it. I can’t tell you how many of the aides their ended up with it. We had an RN working that felt fine and she wore all the proper PPE on the floor, and they tested her, and she had it, didn’t even know it,” he said.
Back on April 3rd, two cases were publicly announced and nearly three months later – there are now 26 active cases and 13 deaths.
However, Helker suggests that the death count surpasses more than 30 residents, based on confidential conversations that she had with select sources that are still at Ontario Center.
In his mind, Corino firmly believes that the lack of PPE is partly to blame for the rampant spread of the illness and high concentration of deaths at Ontario Center.
“In the beginning, we were limited on PPE, but there was enough, but the administrator had it locked in her office,” he claimed.
“I believe that that’s why it bounced through the building the way it did, because we’d start with two people on hold the two that got exposed initially. And then it would pop up, like down the hall further, and then it was in the other wing on the same floor, and it was because we were being made aware, the same PPE,” Corino continued.
Helker added that sanitation and personal protection equipment were locked inside a supply room with a code, which recently changed sometime right before the pandemic.
Corino’s supervisor, the director of maintenance and Administrator Butler were allegedly the only two personnel who had access to this room, and all of the resources within it.
“More than once” Corino admitted to entering COVID-19 positive rooms for aides on floors, for those who did not have personal protection equipment available.
At that point, he didn’t care about the possible consequences because it weighed heavily on his heart and conscious.
“I figured if I got in trouble with work with me to make sure people are safe,” Corino said.
Fortunately for Corino, his assertiveness dictated his future. His strong will defined his own work environment before his depature whereas others, specifically the female aides could not afford this privilege, who remained largely silent partly out of fear and the possibility of reprisal for speaking out – except for when crying out in tears.
“But I was able to do it only because they had no choice. A lot of the girls that worked upstairs, they didn’t have that ability to be able to do so… I’m telling you, it’s very heartbreaking when I went out on a Saturday morning at nine, because my first transport was that time, and there’s girls crying in the hall. They don’t have what they need to wear, and they know they got to work with patients that are positive. That’s not right. Not right,” he added.
“What bothers me about it is the administrator, she had her father admitted into the facility and used PPE to bring her mother and son in facility during the statewide ban on visitation.” – Bill “Beard” Corino
“Visitation has been suspended. In order to curtail the spread of Covid-19 and protect the safety of our residents and staff, entry into our facility is restricted to essential personnel,” their website reads.
Ontario Center adhered to the statewide ban on visitation from March 12th, a mandate which was outlined by Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Instead of seeing their loved ones in-person, the facility encouraged virtual visits.
“We understand that some of these policies may be challenging for residents, their families and loved ones, as well as the staff. We appreciate your understanding and cooperation during this difficult time as we do all we can to protect those in our care,” the online advisory concludes.
The ban on visitation has been a sacrifice for all, or so it initially seems.
Beard remembered seeing a woman who would have someone drive her down to the facility three times a week, just to wave to her husband who sat behind a glass window.
During the pandemic, personal liberties have been sacrificed for the greater good: wearing masks, not going out in public unless if essential, and in this case being unable to see loved ones.
But when it comes to the statewide ban on visitation at nursing home facilities, the strict rules that presumably apply at Ontario Center may in-fact bend when personal matters become a family affair, and nepotism is at play.
“If you have staff that are getting sick, because we don’t have PPE, you certainly shouldn’t be bringing in your relatives in. The statewide ban was for a reason it wasn’t this lackadaisical statement. It’s a potential hazard to bring anyone in and take stuff out,” he stated.
Corino alleges that Administrator Rebecca “Becky” Butler snuck in her mother and one of her sons one weekend in April before his leave of absence from the company on the 13th during the same month.
“I saw it and so did others,” Corino claimed.
Butler’s father, Clayton E. Trickey recently passed away on June 18th. Debby Rehrauer Trickey, his spouse of 42-years allegedly joined her daughter and one of her sons to visit him while residing at Ontario Center.
As he sought to take his leave of absence at the behest of his cardiologist, Trickey was moving into Ontario Center near the beginning of April, according to Corino.
Usually, Corino is on-site Saturdays at the facility to transport some patients for dialysis appointments and he claims that he saw Butler’s son walking around on one of the floors, gowned fully in personal protection equipment.
“The only reason why anybody realized it is because her son was walking around the building, dressed in full PPE. I mean, goggles, mask, gown, you know, the whole smash,” he stated.
As staff were succumbing to COVID-19 while assisting positive patients, in stark contrast, the administrator’s son has been allegedly seen walking one of the floors amid a statewide visitation ban just to see his grandfather alongside his family, who shortly after passed away.
At the expense of the health of his fellow former employees, this situation seriously troubled Corino.
“A lot of people caught it and I really honestly believe it was because they didn’t have the equipment that they needed, and then it really pissed me off to find out that enough PPE made it into the administrator’s car for her to bring her mother and her son in on a weekend when they thought nobody was around to see her father. And that’s what really sticks out to me the most and really bothers me because staff members shouldn’t be crying in the hall because they don’t have what they need. So, she can bring her family in a statewide no ban on visitation. That’s just not right,” he said.
Aside from his personal concerns over whether an administrator has been “withholding safety equipment and misusing safety equipment,” he asks how is it fair for Butler to sneak her family in when others have to wait their turn to see relatives and friends until the statewide ban on visitation is eventually lifted.
For Corino, this situation has agitated him enough to call out disciplinary action to occur in the wake of this alleged incident that he witnessed.
“I honestly feel like that some type of disciplinary action should be taken,” Corino argues, while also claiming, “I don’t think she has the interests of those residents at heart.”
When Corino confronted Butler about taking a temporary leave of absence, he paraphrased her response by stating, “‘Well, you can just turn in your badge and do whatever you want to do.’ I mean, she was very, very quick to say, if you don’t want to be here, if you can’t be here, go.”
With this in mind, Corino like Helker, both of whom possess a well-recorded track history of prior health complications that places them at heightened risk to contract COVID-19 had felt dismissed by his superior and somewhat degraded.
“It’s very, very disheartening to think that as much as you do for the place and the people that you don’t mean anything to them and that they are very easily to dismiss you,” Corino concluded.
In response to these incidents, Corino contacted Centers Health Care, the company’s corporate office in the Bronx and spoke with Centers Health Care Division President Aharon Lantzitsky on three separate occasions who “assured [Corino] me that he was going to look into it” and since then hasn’t responded back to him after leaving a recent voicemail.
Lantzitsky has failed to answer FingerLakes1.com’s request for a comment at this time.
Owning nearly 50 nursing homes facilities across New York State, Ontario Center’s previous track record is checkered with a history of red flags, full of unsanitary practices, unprofessionalism, and misconduct.
ProPublica has collected inspection reports, stating that 61 deficiencies have transpired at this facility from April 19, 2016 through January 27, 2020.
Four of which are infection-related deficiencies, meaning, “this home has violated federal standards protecting residents from the spread of infections,” according to ProPublica.
Medicare, the national healthcare service has graded Ontario Center with an overall rating of 1 out of 5 stars, considering the facility “much below average.”
Additionally, Medicare’s health inspection rating also received a 1 star as well.
More than a month before the pandemic, the state Department of Health conducted its annual health inspection report in late January, citing 14 health violations.
This year, New York State’s number of health violations averages at 5.4 while the national average remains slightly ahead at 8.3.
Still, almost three times the state average, Ontario Center has a laundry list of health violations that are discomforting to review, especially just before the coronavirus pandemic swept across New York State and the nation.
Basic health precautions were being blatantly disregarded and even disrespected for no other reason but sheer negligence.
Yet, at the same time, healthcare professionals that are supposed to be entrusted to keep their practices safe for residents at nursing homes like Ontario Center were needlessly placing them all at risk by not wearing gowns and gloves or even washing their hands, as the Department of Health found during their latest visit at the beginning of 2020.
In an observation that occurred on January 23rd, a registered nurse manager removed and reapplied a foam dressing located on the left outer ankle, which was covered in a brown colored substance – without any gloves.
The report continues to outline that the “RN Manager reapplied and removed the dressing twice with bare hands. Without washing their hands, the RN Manager left the resident’s room, went to the nurse station, and was touching items at the desk including the computer keyboard.”
Another incident report from an observation on January 22nd specifies that if a resident was listed on contact precautions, “gowns and gloves should be worn when entering the room and removed before leaving the room and hand hygiene should be performed.”
A certified nursing assistant was seen walking in and out the resident’s room “without wearing a gown or gloves.”
When interviewed by DOH, the CNA claimed that she was not aware that she had to wear a gown and gloves each time she entered the resident’s room.
On January 23rd, a licensed practical nurse entered the resident’s room without wearing gowns or gloves.
A short few hours later, a second CNA repeated the same health violation that the LPN and first CNA were both reprimanded for.
She also claimed that she was unaware of the fact that she must wear a gown or gloves, adding that “she does not wear a gown or gloves when she delivers the resident’s water or meal trays.”
On that same day, a laundry bin located on the floor was “overflowing, and there were a few yellow isolation gowns on the floor.”
A housekeeper entered a resident’s room “wearing a torn yellow gown and did not perform hand hygiene prior to leaving the resident’s room.”
The housekeeper told DOH that “the yellow isolation gowns are too small and tear all over when he puts the gown on.”
Following this string of health violations, the infection control nurse stated that “all staff should wear gowns and gloves when the resident’s room.”
On top of that, based on observations and interviews that were conducted during the recertification survey, DOH concluded that “the facility did not maintain all essential mechanical, electrical, and patient care equipment in safe operating condition.”
The report specifically cites that no documentation was collected regarding the maintenance and upkeep of washing machines in the laundry.
On January 22nd, an observation found that “the towels and washcloths on the clean linen cart on the third floor had dark stains, and some were light grey, brown, and yellow in color.”
The housekeeping supervisor acknowledged that the washcloths “should not have been sent up to the units that way” and should’ve been “sorted and put in the rewash bin” during an interview with DOH.
The supervisor was unable to recall the last time when the laundry vendor came to check the machines and chemicals, claiming that “she did not know and had not seen anyone since working in the laundry.”
Repairing the machines fell out of the purview of the maintenance director since the laundry had a contracted vendor.
When DOH interviewed Administrator Butler, the report specifies that “she had reports from the laundry vendor that provides the chemicals,” but when the presented documents were reviewed, “one was for housekeeping and the other four were for the kitchen.”
The health violation complaint continues, stating that “the facility [Ontario Center] was unable to provide any documentation for the maintenance of the washing machines.”
After inspecting the machines, the territory manager determined that the chemical dispensers found that the detergent was flat, noting that “they were getting half of the detergent they should have been using” and that the staining occurred “due to the lack of the correct amount of detergent.”
Even the laundry vendor’s territory manager was “unable to provide information on when the machines were checked last,” suggesting that “for a facility of that size and the number of residents the machines should be checked once a month.”
Gabriel Pietrorazio is a senior at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He's written for the Town Times of Watertown, Connecticut Times, Finger Lakes Times, and currently serves as reporter for FL1 News. Feedback, tips, and story ideas can be sent to email@example.com.