Nurses protested outside Kaiser Hospital on Geary Boulevard on Thursday, March 19, 2020. (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez/S.F. Examiner)

Nurses say Kaiser not taking sufficient precautions with coronavirus

Kaiser Permanente Medical Center management is unnecessarily exposing nurses to coronavirus, nurses alleged in a protest Thursday.

Amidst the growing pandemic, Kaiser is assigning more patients to each nurse and not sequestering COVID-19 patients in negative pressure rooms, which could help slow the virus from contaminating others, nurses said.

And while there is a shortage of N95 respiratory masks nationwide, the nurses say Kaiser is keeping masks under lock and key and won’t let them bring them from home, even if they purchase the masks themselves.

Roughly a dozen nurses and members of the California Nurses Association stood outside Kaiser hospital at St. Joseph and O’Farrell streets in San Francisco Thursday, holding aloft signs reading “PROTECT NURSES PATIENTS PUBLIC HEALTH” to call attention to their plight.

And yes, they mostly stood six feet apart, maintaining the recommended social distance.

Deb Quinto, a registered nurse at Kaiser, told me her colleagues are worried Kaiser’s policies will cause coronavirus to spread more quickly.

“We’re worried about cross-contamination,” Quinto said. “We don’t want to get our doctors sick, our patients sick, or ourselves sick.”

In a statement, Kaiser Permanente said their procedures were in line with recommendations from the federal government.

“These protocols, and personal protective equipment, have been reviewed and approved by our infectious disease experts and are in use by the major hospital systems in California and the U.S.,” Stephean Parodi, MD, the associate executive director of the Permanente Medical Group wrote in a statement.

Parodi added, “as the virus is now spreading through our community, equipment and supply needs have increased dramatically. We are prudently managing our resources to ensure this equipment is available for our health care workforce for the duration of this pandemic.”

Kaiser said it is simply following new guidelines issued by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention this week.

The California Nurses Association blasted those guidelines as dangerously lax, including a recommendation to use simple surgical masks instead of N95 respirators amidst the equipment shortage.

Nurses also objected to the current ratio of three patients per nurse amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Treating COVID-19 patients with one patient per nurse is a safer ratio, Quinto said, allowing for more careful procedures to protect nurses, doctors, and patients against possible infection.

“There’s less risk for cross contamination” under a one-to-one ratio, Quinto said. “If people aren’t properly trained on how to remove the equipment they might contaminate themselves or contaminate their patients.”

California has also taken steps to loosen safety standards as hospitals prepare for a flood of patients. Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a proclamation on March 4 allowing the California Department of Health to authorize public health care staff to continue working even if they are infected with COVID-19, provided they are “asymptomatic.”

The CDC has stated publicly that COVID-19 can still be transmitted even if someone displays no symptoms.

The California Nurses Association, which represents 20,000 nurses in Northern California and organized Thursday’s protest, among others statewide this week, argues California hospitals should instead use CAL/OSHA’s stricter standards to protect against aerosol transmissible diseases, since COVID-19 is considered an airborne infectious disease under that standard.

Those stricter measures call for exposure control plans and training, and more robust protective equipment, including air-purifying respirators and air filters for employees who perform high-hazard procedures and who are at risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Without those procedures, nurses on Thursday said they’re afraid of infecting patients they treat, and even their own loved ones. One nurse protesting Kaiser on Thursday, who wished her name not to be used for fear of reprisal from Kaiser, framed the dilemma bluntly.

“It’s pretty scary knowing we’re out there on the front lines, and not having the support,” she said.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at joe@sfexaminer.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.

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