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Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa fighting $55,000 fine for COVID-19 violations from state regulators

State regulators fined Kaiser Permanente $55,350 for safety violations at its Santa Rosa medical center, alleging Sonoma County’s largest health care provider failed to take adequate steps to prevent COVID-19 from spreading through its workforce.

The fines, which are being challenged by Kaiser, emerged from a six-month investigation launched last year by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health that found the HMO did not properly train employees to protect themselves against airborne pathogens and failed to alert workers who had been exposed to the coronavirus.

Cal/OSHA alleged Kaiser didn’t fully investigate those exposures, which took place in the emergency department and the primary floor where people with COVID-19 were receiving care. Kaiser employees were given inadequate protective gear, including air purifying respirators “with defective face shields that were being held together by duct tape,” according to the Nov. 20 citation.

Kaiser Permanente immediately filed an appeal and has denied some of the allegations, saying they date back to earlier days in the pandemic when some current state and federal regulations were not yet in place.

"It’s misleading to interpret these citations to signal any ongoing serious infractions of current public health guidelines at Kaiser Permanente,” the company said in a statement provided by a spokesman Friday. “In fact, these citations stem mainly from allegations much earlier in the pandemic, as health care systems including ours grappled with national shortages and evolving public health guidance.”

California regulators have reported more workplace safety violations at Kaiser Permanente facilities than any other health care employer in the state, resulting in nearly $500,000 in fines, according to an analysis published by CalMatters, a nonprofit news organization based in Sacramento.

State inspectors found instances of improper training on protocols for airborne hazards, dilapidated equipment and failures to report outbreaks of COVID-19 at Kaiser facilities throughout the state. In many instances, Cal/OSHA responded to complaints while some investigations began after employees were hospitalized with COVID-19, according to an agency spokesman.

The largest fine, $87,500, was issued to Kaiser San Leandro Medical Center. The facility repeatedly failed to notify Cal/OSHA when employees were hospitalized with COVID-19, according to the citation.

The Santa Rosa medical center had the fifth-largest fine among the 12 Kaiser facilities cited by state regulators. It trailed facilities in San Leandro, Oakland, Antioch and San Jose, where fines included a $43,000 penalty after at least 60 employees fell ill after a colleague who later tested positive for the coronavirus wore an inflatable Christmas tree costume to the emergency room.

Kaiser Permanente, in an email, claimed these violations stem from complaints filed by advocacy groups undertaking “efforts to file OSHA complaints as part of their campaign to advocate for change.”

Cal/OSHA’s inspection involving Kaiser’s Santa Rosa Medical Center was opened May 6 and continued through Nov. 5. All violations took place “prior to and during the course of the inspection,” according to the document. The violations could have been observed at any time or times during that date range, a Cal/OSHA spokesman said.

The four citations state the company in some instances failed to respond properly to workplace exposures of the virus, failed to properly train staff how to protect themselves from airborne pathogens, didn’t provide proper instruction on using respirators and failed to properly screen patients and staff entering its facilities.

The most serious citation involved the company’s procedures for workplace exposures. Cal/OSHA reported the Santa Rosa Medical Center officials failed to investigate instances of exposure in its facilities. The company also did not notify employees “who had significant exposures to COVID-19 cases and suspected cases, and to provide post-exposure medical services to those employees,” state regulators said.

That citation alone carries an $18,000 penalty.

The timing of the violations would be critical to understanding what they mean, according to Laura Rosenthal, a Santa Rosa attorney who specializes in workers’ compensation law.

A health care company’s failure to notify employees about possible exposure should be a serious concern for any worker or patient, Rosenthal sad.

“These are all fixable,” said Rosenthal, who read through the state’s summary citation report. “My bigger concern would be wanting to know if they fixed them, not so much the fines, but did they fix these problems?”

Unions representing Kaiser employees reject the company’s claim that the violations are outdated or invalid.

Failing to report workplace exposures to employees has been “the biggest issue we’ve faced here unionwide,” said Renee Saldaña, press secretary for SEIU United Healthcare Workers West. It has been a problem for health care workers at just about every facility and not just Kaiser’s, Saldaña said.

“This has been a major concern for all of our members,” she said.

Cyndi Krahne, chief nurse representative for Santa Rosa members of the California Nurses Association, said their members reported seeing those taped-up respirators even after the citation was issued in November, though she hasn't seen it done recently.

Krahne, who works in the 4West surgical unit serving COVID-19 patients, said she and other members still have concerns about how some managers limit access to personal protective equipment and the company’s policies for notifying employees about potential exposure to COVID-19 cases.

“Kaiser’s position is that if we’re wearing PPE (personal protective equipment), we’re safe and we have not been exposed,” Krahne said, noting that they use equipment beyond manufacturer guidelines. ”But we’re wearing the same N95 for an entire shift, therefore Kaiser should consider us as possibly exposed.“

Kaiser Permanente is appealing “each of these citations” from Cal/OSHA across the state, noting that the citations “are not considered final determinations.”

Employers can have fines reduced by fixing problems and they can also provide evidence to refute the validity of violations, according to Cal/OSHA.

“Unequivocally, our medical centers are safe places to work and receive care,” the company said in its statement.

In September, Cal/OSHA announced a $32,000 fine against the Santa Rosa Police Department, saying it failed to safeguard its employees from the coronavirus. A veteran detective who died from the disease was exposed at work to a colleague who had known symptoms of COVID-19, Cal/OSHA alleged.

The department filed an appeal Nov. 17.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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