Nurses allege unsafe working conditions, mismanagement in Bay Area hospitals amid pandemic

Alta Bates Hospital
Coolcaesar/Creative Commons
According to registered postpartum nurse Jemila Pereira, nurses at Berkeley’s Alta Bates Summit Medical Center see personal protective equipment shortages as one safety concern of many.

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As the COVID-19 pandemic brings safety challenges to local hospitals, Berkeley and Oakland health workers are calling for stronger protective measures from hospital leadership.

Staff members at two local hospitals, Berkeley’s Alta Bates Summit Medical Center and the Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center, alleged that their hospitals’ administrations have failed to create a safe environment for patients and hospital staff.

As COVID-19 spreads in the Bay Area, nurses’ complaints center on three alleged issues: oversized patient caseloads, inadequate testing of staff and a lack of available personal protective equipment, or PPE.

Katy Roemer, a registered nurse at Kaiser Permanente who also serves as the chief shop steward for the Oakland branch of the California Nurses Association and as vice president of National Nurses United, alleged that Kaiser Permanente Oakland has neglected to address health workers’ concerns for the safety of themselves and their patients.

“With a pandemic raging, we still aren’t getting what we need to do our jobs and care for our patients in a safe way,” Roemer alleged. “(Nurses are) being completely ignored.”

Roemer said the nurses she represents have petitioned Kaiser to reverse alleged practices, including raising nurse-to-patient ratios and denying exposed staff COVID-19 tests.

A spokesperson for Kaiser Permanente said, however, that both allegations were false.

Roemer said many of her fellow nurses had come to her with similar, “unsettling” experiences: They were allegedly refused COVID-19 tests by the hospital despite being exposed to infected patients. Hospital leadership turned these nurses away and was only willing to test those who already showed symptoms of sickness, Roemer alleged.

Roemer added that waiting to test possibly exposed nurses until they become symptomatic could allow presymptomatic staff to spread the disease among the patients they care for.

A spokesperson for Kaiser Permanente denied that exposed nurses were refused tests, adding that the health care provider aims to double its local testing capacity by late September.

Robin Watkins, a registered nurse in Kaiser Permanente Oakland’s intensive care unit, said nurse-to-patient ratios are a key safety issue for health workers.

“In the ICU, each nurse is assigned to one patient and is constantly monitoring their vitals,” Watkins said. “Most of the patients we see have severe cases of COVID-19 and are attached to a ventilator while unconscious. Caring for just one of these patients at a time is incredibly stressful and demanding.”

Increased patient caseloads could mean that hospital staff like Watkins will have to treat multiple ventilated patients at once. This is virtually impossible to do while monitoring each patient’s vital trends for signs of a rapid deterioration or “crash,” according to Watkins.

Watkins added that an increase in nurse-to-patient ratios could mean “certain death” for some high-risk ICU patients in need of constant attention.

In an email, a spokesperson for Kaiser Permanente said the health care provider had not made or requested changes to staffing ratios for its Northern California hospitals.

Jemila Pereira, a registered postpartum nurse at Berkeley’s Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, also expressed frustration with the policies and practices of her hospital’s administration, which is owned and operated by the care provider Sutter Health.

“Access to PPE is a huge, ongoing tug-of-war between nurses and management (at Alta Bates),” Pereira alleged. “We’ll ask for N95 masks and (powered air-purifying respirators) in the morning and they’ll approve our request, but by the evening we’ll have to argue with them again for more supplies.”

According to Pereira, nurses at Alta Bates see PPE shortages as one safety concern of many. Another issue is multiple-bed hospital rooms that allegedly house patients infected with COVID-19 alongside uninfected patients.

Sutter Health was contacted for comment but did not respond as of press time.

Berkeley and Oakland nurses have advocated against oversized caseloads and inadequate PPE and testing through recent public demonstrations. On Aug. 5, hundreds of unionized Bay Area nurses picketed in front of their hospitals to demand that health care providers improve safety practices.

Laurel Lucia, director of the Health Care Program at the UC Berkeley Labor Center, said nurses’ organizational actions and protests have been instrumental to the success of recent workplace changes.

“Health care and nurses unions have an impressive history of fighting to improve their working conditions and pushing for patient care policy reforms that benefit all of us,” Lucia said. “The California Nurses Association won staffing ratio requirements at hospitals in our state, and they’ve played a critical role in exposing workplace injustices during this pandemic.”

Pereira and Roemer both said they believe the profit motive of private health care providers is an explanation for local hospitals’ alleged mishandling of safety during the pandemic.

“(Health care firms) put their profits above all else at the expense of nurse and patient well-being,” Roemer alleged. “Management is looking at the current situation in terms of the dollar. … What’s happening right now shows very clearly how broken our health care system is.”

Contact Mattias Hoz at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @hozmattias.

A previous version of this article misquoted Laurel Lucia as saying, “The California Nurses Association recently won staffing ratio requirements at hospitals in our state (…).” In fact, Lucia said, “The California Nurses Association won staffing ratio requirements at hospitals in our state (…).”