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Coronavirus outbreak at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital causes worries among employees

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Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital officials confirmed Tuesday that the first coronavirus cases among employees appeared in early August, weeks before the end of last week when hospital officials announced the outbreak internally to the entire team.

Hospital CEO Tyler Hedden wrote on Aug. 29 in a staff memorandum that 13 employees had contracted the virus. Then hospital officials on Monday confirmed the number of employee infections had increased to 17. On Tuesday, officials of the county’s largest hospital declined to say if more of the 2,017 workers had been diagnosed with the infectious disease or give a reason for the delay in notifying staff earlier when the outbreak began.

News of the outbreak has caused concern among some hospital employees who claim management has not been sufficiently transparent with them about the infections among colleagues.

“There’s a lot of people that are really scared,” said one Memorial Hospital nurse who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions.

The nurse was among several hospital employees, all of whom requested anonymity, Tuesday to express worries over how hospital leaders are handling the outbreak.

One employee, who was among the first workers to contract COVID-19 in early August, said the hospital had declined to give her a virus test when she developed symptoms.

The hospital employee ended up getting tested at the state-funded testing site in Santa Rosa and waited four days to learn she indeed had the virus.

Memorial hospital officials insisted Tuesday they are doing everything they can to try to stop the virus from infecting more workers. However, they would not provide any details about specifically when the outbreak started, how and where they think employees were exposed to COVID-19 and if it has spread to workers outside the single area that the CEO noted in his staff memo. Hedden wrote that the employees worked in “1 Center,” which employees said was the general surgery area.

An official with one of the unions representing workers at the hospital said employees were told 200 workers may have been exposed to the infectious disease.

Dr. Chad Krilich, chief medical officer for Providence St. Joseph Health, operator of Santa Rosa Memorial, said providing answers to a reporter’s questions about the number of workers infected, and when and how they caught the virus could violate employees’ privacy. He said the hospital is adhering to county public health and federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines in addressing the outbreak.

That includes enforcing social distancing rules, particularly in the workers’ break room, practicing “universal masking“ and making sure hospital staff wear appropriate personal protective equipment.

Krilich acknowledged Tuesday there have been earlier cases of Memorial hospital employees who tested positive for the coronavirus during the ongoing pandemic that began in March. But he said this is the first time employees who have tested positive have been “localized to one part of the hospital.”

That part of the 300-bed hospital is called the “1 Center unit,” the general surgery unit that serves as the main link between the west side of the hospital and the east side. Krilich said the hospital has tested a majority of the staff who work in that section.

“We are at 75% of our initial wave of testing that we have done for those caregivers on that unit,” he said.

“When you look at the total number of employees, and where we are in tracking ... how many caregivers are involved in this specific event, it is on the order of 1% of the total number of caregivers that work in the organization,” Krilich said, noting the total workforce is about 2,000 employees.

Some employees said the hospital is not providing enough virus testing for colleagues who have come in close contact with co-workers that have been diagnosed with COVID-19. They said that unless they show symptoms of the virus, they’re being asked to keep working while they await the results of their tests rather than quarantining at home.

Memorial officials said they’re following CDC guidance, which allows asymptomatic workers who have had exposure to continue working as long as they are prescreened before work, monitor themselves for symptoms, wear a mask, practice social distancing and clean all common work areas.

Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said Tuesday CDC guidance allows for health care workers showing no virus symptoms, although having been in close contact with individuals who tested positive, to remain on the job if a hospital has a staffing shortage.

One nurse, who also requested anonymity, said Memorial hospital is in fact experiencing a staffing crunch.

"They’re short-staffed,“ she said. ”I feel like our management and administration is more concerned about staffing than they are about employee safety,“ when they require staff to work while awaiting virus test results.

Krilich said the safety of Memorial’s employees and patients are the hospital’s first priority. He said adequate testing has plagued all health care systems since the beginning of the pandemic.

“I haven't heard from any of my colleagues that anybody is satisfied with the amount of testing and the availability that we would like to have,” Krilich said. “We continue to evaluate what’s the right process for us to continue to do testing appropriately.”

The chief medical officer also addressed concerns local residents may have about whether it’s safe to be in the hospital, particularly people who may have been in the hospital during the last month.

“We have policies and procedures in place to ensure our caregivers are safe to come to work; we test every patient that’s admitted to the hospital. ... That’s not the standard that you see across the country,” he said.

Krilich said he hopes local residents do not put off care at Memorial because of fears of contracting the coronavirus at the hospital.

“That could lead to more harm in the community,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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