Fountain Valley Regional Hospital employees and their union say hospital mismanagement is fueling a Coronavirus outbreak because of the lack of fresh masks as well as the practice of mixing virus patients with non-virus patients.
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“Management has not responded to the letter that we sent them. They have not addressed the 15 very specific examples that we provided where there was a failure in testing, tracing and PPE. They have not responded to that,” said National Union Healthcare Worker spokeswoman Barbara Lewis.
The union represents nursing assistants, technicians and specialists at the hospital.
Lewis said two additional nurses have caught the virus.
“Since that press conference last Thursday, we are now aware of two registered nurses who are positive — an additional two that we’re aware of. One of them is in the [intensive care unit] — not at Fountain Valley, but another hospital,” Lewis said.
She said the lack of testing, protective equipment and not properly separating virus patients, combined with short staffing, has led to an outbreak.
Tenet Health spokeswoman Jessica Chen provided a statement shortly after this story was published Tuesday afternoon.
“Many of the statements made by the union last week were false or inaccurate. We are in constant contact with union representatives, sometimes on a daily basis. During these conversations and/or meetings, we discuss the ever-changing and unprecedented pandemic all hospitals are facing,” reads the statement.
“We discuss the many safety and infection control protocols in effect at our hospital, PPE protocols and inventory, as well as the numerous other actions we have taken to ensure the safety of our employees and our patients,” states Tenet Health.
The company also disputes the claim that the hospital is being pushed to its limit.
“We are not at capacity and have not reached a point where diverting ambulances is necessary or appropriate. As long as we have sufficient physicians, staff, space and equipment, we will not go on diversion. We are committed to caring for our community,” reads the statement.
Yet the situation on the ground is very different, say hospital workers.
“We believe that there is an outbreak occurring. Nearly everyday we hear of more and more cases that are occurring,” Lewis said.
Registered nurse Melissa Moore quit after 12 years with the hospital because of the conditions, she said.
“If something doesn’t get done and people don’t speak out about it, it’s just going to continue and get worse and they’re going to have more patients suffer,” Moore said in a Tuesday phone interview.
Moore said she was exposed to the virus multiple times while working at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and was told to come back to work while her virus test was still pending.
Normally people would quarantine if they had an outstanding test, Moore said.
The test came back negative.
She also said management closed a hospital building down, leading to overcrowding.
“So instead of having two patients in the critical care area, now you have three patients to a room and they’re not practicing social distancing,” Moore said. “I feel like this is not going to get better, it’s going to get worse and I didn’t want to risk my health, or my livelihood, or my integrity as a nurse taking care of patients in that environment.”
And despite Tenet’s statement about the consistency of their practices with CDC guidelines and protocols, Lewis and employees replied that the CDC guidelines are not sufficient enough, given their situation.
Tenet officials also said they screen patients for the virus.
“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.
But the union and its employees are demanding automatic tests for all patients because the virus can be transmitted by someone who’s not showing symptoms, known as asymptomatic transmission.
Lewis said the hospital has seen its highest number of positives and cases under investigation in recent days. Investigation cases are people who are waiting for their test results to come back.
“There were 123 positive patients under investigation at the hospital yesterday — the highest number to be reported,” Lewis said.
Lewis and employees said Fountain Valley Regional Hospital doesn’t test patients or staff for the virus often enough and fails to regularly screen for symptoms.
In a Tuesday phone interview, a pediatric nurse said the hospital is understaffed and nurses are trying to juggle too many patients. The nurse didn’t want to be named for fear of retaliation.
They said adult patients are being put into the pediatric section because the hospital is running out of space.
“We have COVID patients in the same unit as a sick child that doesn’t have COVID,” the nurse said.
The concerns from Fountain Valley Regional Hospital employees come as hospitals across Orange County are seeing a spike in virus patients.
The hospitals are preparing to enter “crisis care,” which could see waiting rooms converted into treatment rooms and converting normal rooms into intensive care units. Hospitals could also start employing tents to house patients.
Orange County’s hospitalization rate per 1 million residents exceeded Los Angeles County Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the virus has now killed 369 people out of 18,892 confirmed cases, according to updated numbers from the OC Health Care Agency released Tuesday.
Hospitalizations reached a new high at 659 people, including 224 in intensive care units.
Almost 8,900 people have recovered from the virus and nearly 279,000 tests have been conducted throughout OC, which is home to roughly 3.2 million people.
And the virus continues to hit residents living in the cities of Anaheim and Santa Ana particularly hard. While the two cities make up roughly 20 percent of the population, they also have nearly 38 percent of the total cases as of Tuesday.
Dr. Saahir Khan, an assistant clinical professor of infectious diseases at UC Irvine, said hospital staff undergo daily symptom screenings before entering the UCI Medical Center in Orange.
“For us, the staff, we do daily symptom screening and we have them tested by PCR if they seem positive on symptoms. And you have to undergo symptom screening and a temperature check prior to coming into the hospital,” Khan said in a Tuesday phone interview.
Unlike Fountain Valley Regional Hospital, the UCI Medical Center has dedicated units for virus patients.
“We do have dedicated COVID units and keep the COVID patients separate from non-COVID patients,” Khan said.
He acknowledged that could be difficult to maintain as hospitals are being pushed to their limits.
“Now I understand for some hospitals as you get overwhelmed with COVID patients, it’s sometimes difficult to maintain that,” Khan said.
He also said UCI hospital staff have one specific mask for COVID patients, which is switched with another mask before employees see non-virus patients.
“People should not be wearing their N95 masks going in and out of COVID rooms. We also have one N95 per shift, but you’re only supposed to wear it going into a COVID room,” Khan said. “Because if somebody’s going into COVID rooms and non-COVID rooms with the same mask on, that sort of defeats the purpose.”
As the virus cases spread throughout OC, the hospitalizations are overwhelming not just Fountain Valley Memorial Hospital, but also UC Irvine.
“Our cases are also shooting through the roof. The majority of our [intensive care unit] is COVID patients and I think the biggest challenge is not so much the number of ICU beds … we’re more limited by the staffing and the availability of resources, like ventilators,” Khan said.
“I’m afraid of being overwhelmed,” Khan said. “We estimate that we would be reaching a peak in the next three weeks.”
Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:
Reporter Nick Gerda contributed to this story. He covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.