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Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital workers say stronger COVID safeguards needed, call for wider testing

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Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital staff angered over their employer’s response to a recent outbreak of the coronavirus at the hospital rallied outside the medical campus Wednesday, calling for broader testing at the site and stronger safety protocols to prevent the virus from spreading undetected among patients and staff.

The hospital has been criticized by employees previously in the pandemic over its rationing of protective equipment and staffing decisions that they said left the Montgomery Drive site under-equipped to handle pandemic-related pressures. Earlier this month, the hospital accepted help from the National Guard to fill a severe worker shortage.

Since early August, 26 employees and “fewer than five” patients have contracted COVID-19 at the hospital due to an outbreak of the virus in the general surgery area, hospital officials said. Those infected represent less than 1% of a 2,000-person workforce, hospital executives said in a statement, and they have worked closely with Sonoma County health authorities to stem the outbreak, hospital representatives said.

"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,“ according to a statement from the hospital provided by spokesman Christian Hill.

But staff rallying Wednesday said they believe executives’ narrow view of what it takes to be exposed to the virus places workers and patients at continued risk. They described being rejected for testing after coming in contact with COVID-positive individuals only to have determine that the exposure was low-risk.

“How many of us feel that the hospital’s response (to the outbreak) is a greater threat to us than COVID?” said Tammie Campbell, an X-ray technician who has worked at Memorial for about 12 years, speaking through a megaphone.

She and about two dozen other staffers, including nurses and a broad range of workers ―from cleaning crews to respiratory therapists ― rallied to demand widespread and regular testing, greater access to N95 respirator masks and other protective equipment and stronger paid leave options for workers forced to quarantine after being exposed to the virus at work. The participating employees are represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers and Santa Rosa Memorial’s Staff Nurses Association.

Hospital executives said in a statement that the company must use medical criteria to prioritize testing for those most likely to have contracted COVID-19 because diagnostic supplies remain limited.

“Because current testing capacity does not allow for universal testing of all patients and caregivers at this time, we make testing determinations based on a number of factors, including community prevalence, potential or confirmed exposure, and guidance from public health authorities,” the hospital statement said.

Two county supervisors, Shirlee Zane and Lynda Hopkins, attended the rally and spoke in support of the workers. They vowed to revisit the county’s contract with Memorial Hospital that gives it the prized designation as the region’s highest-level trauma center.

Hopkins told rally attendees she was troubled that workers were having to make the same demands for protective policies and equipment they were demanding about six months ago when the pandemic first hit the region.

“If health care workers are heroes, why the hell are we still talking about N95s?” said Hopkins, referring to respirator masks. “We’re still having the same conversations about the lack of health care worker protections.”

In July, the National Union of Healthcare Workers conducted a five-day strike at the hospital, demanding better pay and health care benefits and wider distribution of protective equipment for hospital staff. Other elected officials joined the picket lines, including Supervisor-elect Chris Coursey and Santa Rosa Councilman Chris Rogers.

On Wednesday, Zane and others criticized Memorial Hospital’s parent company, Providence St. Joseph Health, for failing to implement aggressive programs to protect and support employees while benefiting from at least $509 million federal stimulus aid for hospitals during the pandemic.

“You put your lives in harm’s way every single day, the least thing they could do is take care of you,” Zane said to the group.

The rally ended with an exchange between Zane, Hopkins and a group of workers who tried to follow hospital CEO Tyler Hedden from the protest across the street into the parking lot, where they were stopped by a security guard, according to Zane.

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

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Zane said she was concerned enough about Memorial employees that she would move to have the Board of Supervisors analyze the hospital’s agreement with the county.

“We’re going to look at that contract to make sure there are assurances they are taking care of their employees,” Zane said.

Hospital officials dispelled a rumor that part of the hospital was on lockdown again due to virus cases, saying in a statement: “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,” the statement read. “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.”

Several employees said they felt overlooked in the mix of hospital employees considered to have been exposed to staff and patients with the virus.

As part of her job as a patient transporter, Allison Parting moves patients between hospital departments and she found out she had cared for at least one patient with COVID-19 who was not wearing a mask. When she discussed her concerns with managers, she was told her exposure was low risk and she could seek testing on her own.

Parting said several others like her had similar experiences, including a colleague whom she said did contract the virus at work. She feels they were improperly excluded from the hospital’s contact tracing efforts to detect the spread of the virus after the outbreak began.

“They have not acknowledged we interacted with all of the patients and some of the workers who contracted COVID,” Parting said.

Campbell said she and others decided to hold the rally to highlight what they claim is an overly narrow testing regimen that leaves people at risk.

“When people come here, they need to know their caregivers have not been tested,” Campbell said.

“I do feel like they’ve met the lowest level required instead of taking all precautions to protect their assets — that’s us,” said Chuck Desepte a 13-year X-Ray technician, gesturing toward the hospital. “That’s just a building. We make the hospital.”

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

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