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Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital gets help from National Guard health care workers

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National Guard medical teams are assisting staff at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, because of a severe worker shortage caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and wildfires, hospital officials confirmed Thursday.

Deployment of National Guard health care workers at Sonoma County’s largest hospital also comes amid a COVID-19 outbreak among Memorial hospital’s employees that was revealed this week. Although the outbreak that began in early August has further depleted the hospital’s team of about 2,000, hospital officials contended the two issues are not related.

“This is a resource that is being offered to all California hospitals,” Christian Hill, a hospital spokesman said of the guard members. “Our decision to utilize this resource is not connected to the caregiver (coronavirus) exposure at (Memorial Hospital).”

National Guard teams working at Memorial include nurse leaders who manage emergency medical technicians in various units throughout the hospital, Hill said. He didn’t disclose how many of the guard members are working at the hospital.

The guard members also are assisting with simple duties like transporting patients and taking their vital signs, according to employees who requested anonymity for fear of repercussions from hospital leaders.

Despite the pandemic and wildland blazes, the county’s other two large medical centers — Kaiser Permanente and Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital — do not need the National Guard to bolster their respective workforces, according to spokespeople at the hospitals.

On Monday, Memorial hospital officials said 17 employees that work in the “1 Center” unit, which is the general surgery area, have been infected by COVID-19. The next day hospital officials confirmed the first virus cases among workers appeared early last month, weeks before the hospital’s CEO sent a bulletin on Aug. 29 to alert the entire organization of the outbreak.

Thus far, Memorial officials have declined to say whether more workers have tested positive for the coronavirus, and if they had, to quantify the extent of the outbreak.

Other hospital employees, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the virus indeed has infected workers in other areas of the 300-bed hospital besides general surgery.

Hill said Memorial has completed virus testing of nearly all of the staff in the “identified group of those at risk.”

“The total number of caregivers who have tested positive remains less than 1% of our current workforce (of 2,017) at this time,” he said.

On Aug. 23, Tyler Hedden, Memorial’s CEO, and the chief nursing officer, announced in an internal memorandum that efforts were underway to recruit more workers in response to the “incredible hardship” regarding staffing brought on by the “length of our response to COVID-19, and now the harsh reality of an early beginning to the fire season.”

They pointed out in the memo that hiring traveler nurses has proven more difficult due to “supply and demand Issues” caused by the pandemic and associated travel restrictions, as well as the area housing crunch caused by several years of wildfires.

To help offset the difficult situation, Memorial’s leaders implemented the hospital’s emergency management system protocol and requested additional staffing resources through the Sonoma County Medical Health Operational Area Coordinator. That request led to the assignment of National Guard nurses and technicians under the authority of the California Department of Public Health.

The hospital chief executive and chief nursing officer did not mention the institution’s virus outbreak among staff in their Aug. 23 memo.

Tammera Campbell, a radiologic technologist in Memorial’s imaging department, said her unit is “desperately short-staffed.”

Campbell, who is on the bargaining team of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, said staff has to handle many extra protocols, procedures and precautions required as a result of the pandemic.

“Everything takes longer with COVID,” she said, noting foot traffic patterns through the hospital also have been altered since certain workers can no longer go through the general surgery area because of the infectious disease outbreak there.

Campbell said the outbreak among colleagues, the staffing shortage plus the ongoing pandemic have placed a great deal of stress on hospital employees, and many worry about the virus spreading.

“I came home today. I showered and washed my hair before I kissed my husband,” she said. “That’s what our lives look like outside of work. We are taking risks every day, even when we do it under the safest possible circumstances.”

Late Wednesday, meanwhile, Sonoma County health officials reported six more fatalities related to COVID-19, bringing the pandemic death toll to 89.

All six victims — four women and two men — were over 64, had underlying health conditions and they died between Aug. 19 and Aug. 30. And five of the six were residents of local skilled nursing centers or residential care homes for the elderly.

County health officials again declined to release demographic information and other details about the residents who died, citing federal privacy laws around health care.

Of the 89 deaths of county residents attributed to the coronavirus, 73 have been residents of senior care homes. That share, more than 80%, has been constant throughout the summer among local nursing homes, assisted living centers and board and care homes.

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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