A lack of fresh masks and testing and the mixing of coronavirus and non-virus patients is jeopardizing safety and contributing to the illness at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital, medical workers and union representatives contend.

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Respiratory therapist Christina Rodriguez told Voice of OC Thursday that hospital management or the parent company, Tenet Health, has failed to respond to their concerns since the pandemic began in March. 

“We’re trying to get them to respond, but they have never given us a straight answer,” Rodriguez said. 

Rodriguez oversees virus patients hooked up to ventilators and said the intensive care unit “looks like a war zone.” 

“I’ve been here 17 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said. 

The concerns are being raised as hospitals across the county face an influx of coronavirus patients at a faster rate than any other time in the pandemic, with hospitals heading closer to triggers for going further into crisis surge plans.

Tenet Health issued a statement early Thursday and said the company is following proper procedures.  

“The safety of our patients and staff is our most important priority at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center. Our practices to ensure the safety of our patients and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic are consistent with guidelines and protocols issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the California Department of Public Health,” reads the statement. 

“We are in regular contact with the various labor unions that represent our employees and we are open and transparent with them about our protocols,” states Tenet Health. 

But at a midmorning news conference outside the hospital Thursday, the National Union of Healthcare Workers representatives and the employees it represents said the company hasn’t responded directly to their concerns. 

Rodriguez said a human resources manager previously met with employees and union officials and only responded by reading from a prepared statement and not addressing their concerns. 

The union sent a letter to the Orange County Health Care Agency on Wednesday, outlining the various concerns employees have. 

“[The union] wants to alert you to the infection control failures that threaten patient and employee safety which we have outlined in a formal complaint to the California Department of Public Health submitted today,” reads the letter. 

“As the complaint details, conditions at Fountain Valley have contributed to the exposure of at least seven staff members (three of whom are now ill) and an unknown number of patients to [the virus], during two separate incidents on June 16 and June 25,” the letter said.

Employees and union representatives said new patients aren’t automatically tested for the virus and coronavirus patients are mixed in with other patients on a hospital floor that was formerly for virus patients only. 

Tenet Health said the hospital screens patients for a fever and other symptoms. 

“Every patient who enters the hospital is screened for fever and other signs and symptoms of COVID-19. Testing is provided based on symptoms and physician order. Employees complete a COVID-19-related screening questionnaire every day when they come to work and, along with physicians and vendors, have their temperature checked every time they enter or reenter our hospital,” reads the company’s statement. 

Epidemiologists and medical doctors have consistently said the virus can be transmitted from an asymptomatic person, meaning someone has the virus but isn’t showing any signs of it. 

“Fountain Valley is not taking COVID-19 seriously,” nurse assistant Michelle Riggins said at Thursday’s news conference. 

“I’ve been informed twice that I’ve been exposed to COVID-19,” she said. 

Meanwhile, the pandemic continues to worsen across the county.

The virus has now killed 354 people, including nine new deaths reported Thursday, out of 15,062 confirmed cases, according to the county’s updated numbers.

There were 556 people hospitalized, including 193 in intensive care units. 

Over 7,900 people have recovered so far and roughly 248,000 tests have been conducted throughout OC, which is home to about 3.2 million people. 

Meanwhile, cases are rising at alarming rates across OC, with hospitalizations rising faster than at any other time of the pandemic —  jumping 57% since mid-June, from 346 patients to 542 hospitalized on Tuesday.

If OC’s hospitalizations keep rising at the current rate, in about two and a half weeks there would be over 750 coronavirus patients in local hospitals, which would cross one of the thresholds county officials and hospitals are monitoring for activating hospital surge plans they call “crisis care strategies.”

The 750-patient threshold “is one of several important factors to monitor, and it is a consideration that numbers are getting to a point that stresses the system,” said Dr. Gagandeep Grewal, associate medical director of emergency medical services at the OC Health Care Agency.

The numbers are a “guideline, not a hard and fast rule,” he said. “For example, if in two weeks our hospitalized cases go up by a factor of 1.8 to a level of 740, we will still consider that to be very concerning and would not wait until the doubling time worsens or the [daily number of coronavirus patients] tops 750.”

If hospitals move further into their surge plans, Grewal said, that would mean steps like converting normal hospital rooms into intensive care units; expanding beds by adding them to surge tents, conference rooms and waiting areas that would be converted to treatment areas; adding staffing by switching to longer shifts; canceling elective procedures; and further rationing of personal protective equipment.

Earlier in the pandemic, Orange County was doing better than its surrounding counties, but has since seen its hospitalization and death rates rise higher than San Diego County and nearly as high as Los Angeles County. On one key measure, intensive care patients with coronavirus per million residents, OC is now higher than three of the four surrounding counties, including Los Angeles County.

As of the most recent available data, last week OC hospitals reported a total of 16 coronavirus patients from out of the county, about 4 percent of total coronavirus patients in OC at that point. Among the out-of-county coronavirus patients, five were from Imperial County, according to the OC Health Care Agency.

All hospitals in Orange County are being impacted by the pandemic, Grewal said.

“We initially saw the highest degree of hospital burden in the hotspots of the county (Anaheim and Santa Ana), but as COVID-19 has become more widespread we are seeing the burden shift to hospitals based on their size, not just location.”

Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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