By Jeremy Hay
Bay City News Foundation
Nurses, housekeepers, X-ray technicians and other health care workers on Wednesday called on their employer, Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, to provide greater protections against COVID-19. The hospital last month experienced an outbreak of the highly infectious disease.
The workers gathered Wednesday across the street from the hospital near downtown Santa Rosa to make their case.
They said they needed adequate safety equipment such as N95 face masks; immediate testing for employees exposed to COVID-19 or show symptoms of it; and regularly scheduled testing, not just in response to an outbreak.
They also called for all incoming patients to be isolated until they get COVID-19 tests and results; and for thorough contact tracing protocols.
The rally was small – about 25 people – but the outrage was large and pointed.
County Supervisor Shirlee Zane drew on Amos 5:24, from the Old Testament, to criticize Providence St. Joseph Health, the hospital’s owner and operator.
“Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever flowing stream,” Zane said. “I am here today to say they do answer to that higher authority and they have disobeyed. They have not shown the respect and dignity and compassion and justice to their employees – how dare they.”
She added that it was the county Board of Supervisors that approved the hospital’s coveted Level II trauma center status and said: “I know some other health care organizations that would like that contract, and I’m telling you, I’m going to commit to taking a look at the contact and what it says about protecting employees. There is no excuse.”
County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins reeled off a list of figures – from Providence St. Joseph Health CEO Rod Hochman’s annual compensation, roughly $10.8 million in 2018, to the company’s $12 billion in cash reserves, to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital’s $42.8 million dollar profit in the first six months of 2020 – contrasting them with what workers described as the hospital’s failure to provide immediate in-house testing and adequate protective equipment.
“It is completely unacceptable,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins added, “I’m with Shirlee in terms of looking at that contract; we need to use whatever leverage we can to make sure that our healthcare partners, our heroes, are safe.”
In a statement, Christian Hill, a hospital spokesman, said the hospital makes certain that “our caregivers have the appropriate PPE for every care setting and discipline, and that they follow our universal masking and social distancing policies.”
Asked to respond to the comments by Zane and Hopkins, Providence St. Joseph Health communications manager Christina Harris said in a second statement: “Our focus remains on caring for our patients and caregivers during this pandemic. We are prepared to have an open, direct conversation with our supervisors to help them better understand the valuable services we provide our community every single day.”
The rally was organized by the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents about 740 of the hospital’s service and technical employees and has been in contract negotiations with Providence St. Joseph Health for more than a year.
The specter of the recent COVID-19 outbreak at the hospital – which according to management began in early August but which employees weren’t told of until Aug. 29 – hung over the event. Hospital authorities said 26 employees and fewer than five patients were infected.
Hill, in the statement, said that “all caregivers believed to have had a high risk of exposure as a result of this incident have completed three rounds of testing and no additional COVID-19 positive caregivers or patients have been identified.”
As with other points of contention, workers at the rally disputed that account.
“I spent time on that floor and I was never tested and no contact tracer has contacted me,” said Tammie Campbell, an X-ray technician. “It tells me that they have failed to embrace the need to do the right thing.”
Mito Gonzales, a phlebotomist who has worked at Memorial for 25 years, said, “I don’t feel safe coming to work right now.”
Gonzales added about the demands, “We shouldn’t have to be out here asking for these. Part of your job is to make sure your staff is being taken care of and you’re not doing that.”
Some at the rally drew attention to what they said is a practice of the hospital when its employees come into contact with someone with COVID-19. In those cases, people are told to get tested and to return to work until they get results back or develop symptoms, potentially exposing others, said Sue Gadbois, president of the Staff Nurses Association, which represents about 780 of the hospital’s nurses.
That puts both patients and caregivers in danger, said Gadbois.
“We know that COVID can be transmitted from people who are asymptomatic,” she said. “We think it’s ill-advised. We think this is exactly what led to the outbreak.”
Harris said, “Our caregivers have been educated to stay home if they are sick, experience any of the symptoms that are part of our standard screening process or are exposed to someone with COVID-19, and to contact Caregiver Health Services. We follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for health care workers and caregivers would never be asked to work with symptoms.”
On Wednesday, the talk at the rally was that another outbreak had occurred in the same general surgery unit, 1 First, where the first had taken place and that it was once again under quarantine.
Gonzales said the word was getting out through other employees, not management. “They don’t want you to know about it,” he said.
Harris, on behalf of the hospital, said, “At this time we are not experiencing another COVID-19 cluster event. Like all hospitals across the nation we have had caregivers test positive for COVID-19. We anticipate this will continue until a vaccine is available. When caregivers do test positive, out of an abundance of caution, we quickly initiate mitigation protocols, which include contact tracing and quarantining of patients and caregivers with risk of exposure.”
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