‘Uneasy And Frustrated’: California Nurses Worry As Coronavirus Spreads


By Catherine Ho

A third Northern California health care worker tested positive for the new coronavirus Monday, exacerbating concerns among already-worried nurses and staffers that hospitals need to better protect workers on the front lines of the growing public health crisis.

All three health care workers, who are self-quarantining at home, are employees at NorthBay VacaValley Hospital in Vacaville, which initially treated the first known case of community spread in the United States — a Solano County woman who had neither traveled to countries where the virus is spreading, nor been in contact with a known coronavirus patient. The patient was later taken to UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento after her condition worsened at the Vacaville hospital.

VacaValley sent about 100 health care workers home to self-quarantine, and UC Davis sent home about two dozen. None of the UC Davis workers who were exposed to the patient has tested positive, Sacramento County health officials said Monday, though they are still awaiting test results for a few.

“We’re extremely concerned about the safety of health care workers and patients they’re caring for,” said Sal Rosselli of the National Union of Healthcare Workers. “I’m concerned most hospitals and nursing employers are behind the curve, they’re not on top of this.”

The VacaValley Hospital employees who tested positive for the virus are self-isolating in their homes in Alameda, Solano and Placer counties. The Placer county individual is showing mild symptoms; public health officials declined to specify the severity of symptoms for the other two, but neither are serious enough to be hospitalized. Over the weekend, a health care worker at a Seattle nursing home was hospitalized after contracting the virus.

Unions representing nurses, radiologists, respiratory therapists and other health care workers say they are worried about what they describe as a lack of clear communication from administrators on how to handle suspected coronavirus patients — including what protective gear to wear and how to use it properly, and what steps should be taken to admit and isolate a patient if one were to come to the hospital.

“I feel uneasy and frustrated,” said Jenny Managhebi, a clinical nurse at UC Davis Medical Center who did not personally treat the coronavirus patient. “There seems to be a lack of communication about if we were to get a patient, what that looks like. We don’t know where to start, where they go, what unit, what staff members are involved.

“Maybe at the highest level, they have a plan, but a nurse wouldn’t know what it is,” Managhebi said. “I feel like if somebody put out a statement like, ‘Hey if this situation presents itself, this is the plan,’ that would make everyone feel better.”

Managhebi said it’s been more difficult for workers to obtain N95 respirator masks, one of the protective items that federal authorities say health workers should wear when coming in contact with a suspected coronavirus patient. She said that under normal circumstances when treating patients with infectious disease such as tuberculosis and measles, staffers are able to obtain N95 masks from supply closets in every hospital unit, but when she was at work last week, staff did not have access to the masks.

She said staff is being told they can use what’s known as a “PAPR”— a hooded respirator that filters out contaminated air. But, she said, not everyone has received training recently on how to use them.

A spokeswoman for UC Davis Health said it has clear policies and regular trainings for staff on how to treat patients with infectious diseases including coronavirus.

“We regularly handle patients with infectious diseases and we have robust infection control protocols in place to handle such illnesses, including novel coronavirus,” UC Davis spokeswoman Tricia Tomiyoshi-Marsom said in a statement.

She said that the medical center does not have a shortage of protective equipment, and that it “revisited our storage of (protective personal equipment), specifically masks, after some instances of theft, so they are now kept more securely, but are still available for appropriate use.”

VacaValley Hospital managed to return to normal staffing levels by backfilling the roughly 100 positions with health care workers from temp agencies, part-time workers picking up more shifts, and reassigning people within the organization, said Steve Huddleston, vice president of public affairs for NorthBay Healthcare, which oversees the hospital.

But the strain on the health care workforce will probably worsen now that more coronavirus tests have become available and state labs are processing them more quickly — which will likely mean more positive results in communities where the spread had not previously been tracked.

“At some point, we’ll get everyone cleared and back to work, then we’ll be prepared for the public,” Huddleston said. “What happens when all the folks in the community who we don’t even know about yet start to come down with symptoms and begin to overwhelm the health care system in total? You can see that happening in Washington state now — hospitals having a shortage of workers so they have to reduce services and close because of the workforce shortage.”


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