Members of the union representing health care workers at a Bremerton hospital struggling to contain a COVID-19 outbreak are demanding hospital leaders and local and state public health agencies do more to protect workers and patients.
Representatives and members of UFCW 21, which represents employees at St. Michael Medical Center in Bremerton, said at a Tuesday news conference that there are problems with how the hospital’s leadership is responding to the outbreak that has sickened at least 30 employees and 15 patients since early August.
The staff at St. Michael, which is part of the Tacoma-based CHI Franciscan system, is using tape to hold together protective equipment and are being asked to come to work if they aren’t showing symptoms of COVID-19 before their test results return, said Cindy Franck, a nurse at the hospital.
“How many times do health-care workers need to cry out for proper protective gear before things change? How many times must workers raise concerns that there are not proper safety protocols in place or being followed before things change,” she said.
Measures such as all employees being screened before entering the hospital are being taken to reduce the risk of employees spreading the virus, said Cary Evans, CHI Franciscan’s vice president for communications and government affairs.
“CHI Franciscan requires employees with any symptoms to stay home from work,” he said in an email. “Further, as part of our contact tracing efforts with Kitsap County Public Health and the Washington state Department of Health, we are expanding testing to all St. Michael Medical Center employees.”
CHI Franciscan’s efforts thus far haven’t been enough, said Sarah Cherin, executive vice president and political and community director for UFCW 21, and the union is asking for:
- Hospital employees to get test results back between 24 and 48 hours.
- Notification within eight hours of being exposed to a person with COVID-19.
- Paid administrative leave while awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test, regardless if the person isn’t showing symptoms.
- Safe staffing levels.
- Adequate personal protective equipment for all employees.
Three units have been affected by the outbreak. No new patients are being admitted to the units, but existing patients are still being treated in them.
The state Department of Health (DOH) and the Kitsap Public Health District announced the outbreak at St. Michael on Friday evening. At the time, the two departments said there were “more than 30 cases” at St. Michael, which was formerly known as Harrison Medical Center.
On Aug. 4, Kitsap Public Health was notified by St. Michael officials that an employee tested positive for COVID-19.
On Aug. 13, five more cases were connected with one unit at St. Michael, and Kitsap Public Health suggested testing all staff and patients in the affected unit, declaring an outbreak Aug. 14.
The timeliness of test results was stressed a number of times during the news conference. Rob Shauger is a nurse’s assistant and had received a negative result Tuesday morning after being tested on Thursday. He worked an overnight shift Monday.
“I don’t want to get anybody infected,” he said. “We need to go to rapid testing as soon as possible for our hospital, for our staff.”
A spokesperson for Kitsap Public Health cited federal laws protecting an individual’s health information for not notifying the public before Aug. 21.
Tad Sooter, a public information officer with the health district, said when the outbreak was declared, it was just one unit with five cases.
“Because the hospital was able to notify affected staff and patients, we determined a broad public release was not necessary at that time,” Sooter said.
Another persistent problem raised by St. Michael workers is how infrequently they receive updates about the station and the notification process.
Shauger didn’t hear about the outbreak from his employer or Kitsap Public Health. He heard it from his brothers in Marysville, who saw it on the news Friday night and called him.
“I had to look at the news,” he said during the news conference. “I was like, ‘Whoa.’ So that is how I found out.”
There have been 954 cases of COVID-19 in Kitsap County and nine deaths.