For the second time in the last several days, staff from Saint Mary’s Regional Medical Center gathered outside on the hospital’s grounds carrying picket signs.
Members of the California Nurses Association union, which represents nurses at Saint Mary’s, turned up Friday to an informational picket organized by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 9413 union, which represents other employees of the hospital, and were in turned joined by CWA members during their own picket today.
While CWA members’ informational picket was staged in response to alleged stalling of contract negotiations with the hospital’s owner, Prime Healthcare Services, the nurses picket was in response to staffing levels and alleged inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE).
Nurses protested in May for the same thing.
A Prime Healthcare Services spokesperson refuted claims in a statement sent out prior to the nurses’ picket.
According to the statement, Saint Mary’s has remained in close contact with the Washoe County Health District (WCHD) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to ensure proper precautions are being followed, adding that the hospital’s “PPE practices exceed recommendations provided by CDC guidelines in this current pandemic.”
Saint Mary’s in September, however, was identified as one of the top locations in Washoe County for COVID-19.
In regard to staffing levels, the statement said, “Saint Mary’s is also continuing to staff appropriately to patient acuity and following the CNA contract terms. We have the ability to call in extra staffing when challenged with staffing needs.”
Catherine Dawson, a union representative and critical care nurse at Saint Mary’s for the last seven years, said the hospital’s statements concerning safety as a top priority don’t reflect the current situation inside its doors.
“One example, our urgent care, where I went to go get a coronavirus test a few weeks ago, has gotten rid of the respiratory care area,” she said. “So, the coronavirus patients are sitting right next to the kid who needs stitches or has a broken arm.”
She said she took her son to get tested at a facility associated with his pediatrician the day following her own test and was pleased to see a different situation, one in which staff was equipped with “appropriate PPE” and was conducting testing outside.
“There’s a great bunch of nurses that have been here for a long time that have always had the best interests of our patients at heart,” Dawson said of Saint Mary’s. “And we have an almost entirely new administration locally in the last year. And they have proven over and over again that what they care about is money and not about their nurses, not about their patients. So, it’s time to invite the community into our fight.”
Dawson said she’d like the community to educate itself on the reality for staff inside Saint Mary’s and to reach out to the hospital to pressure its administration to make changes.
“We need your help and the pressure of the community to help us because the standard of care is quickly eroding—not just because of coronavirus, but because of the motivations of our hospital,” she said. “And understand that Saint Mary’s has been very profitable, and they are cutting every corner that they can in order to continue that. And in the setting of the pandemic, it’s just been a gigantic magnifying glass on the sort of lack of motivation to do better.”
Dawson said she hopes the community realizes that Saint Mary’s has been very profitable and that she believes corner cutting is how profit margins for the hospital are maintained.
“It’s not working, the things that they’re doing—and that’s why we’re here, to invite the community to know about all of this stuff,” she said. “It’s really scary what’s going on inside that hospital, and, so, we had to come outside because we ran out of resources on the inside. We are not able to do what we need to do to take care of our patients, and we want the community to put pressure on the hospital to help us with that.”
Chrystine Revelli is also a nurse at Saint Mary’s. She agrees with Dawson that the COVID-19 pandemic has placed hospital care under the magnifying glass.
“You know, we’re eight months into this pandemic, and on some levels we have gained some preparation, but, in others, we still are underprepared,” she said.
Revelli said her biggest concern right now is staffing.
“How we staff our hospitals [in relation] to our patients, is of particular concern to me,” she said. “We could do so much better, and we need to do better. And they can do better, but they’re not.”
Bethany Want, another nurse and union representative, has been at the hospital since the beginning of her nursing career six and a half years ago. She, like Revelli, is concerned by a high ratio of patients to nurses within the hospital.
Her other primary concern is PPE. According to Want, nurses are given one disposable mask and disposable gown that they’re intended to wear for an entire 12-hour shift as they move from room to room while caring for patients. She added that the hospital has done little to educate nursing staff on the proper use of PPE, saying sometimes nurses need to quickly Google how to use the equipment before donning it to get to work.
“We want them to take care of us, so we can take care of our patients,” Want said.
In addition to getting out their message concerning current working conditions at the hospital, the nurses at the picket said they were using the opportunity to make a plea to the community to buckle down on taking coronavirus safety precautions.
“You know, we’re all over it,” Dawson said. “I wish I could go home and visit my family for Christmas or Thanksgiving—but the rational part of my brain knows that it’s not a good idea. And I want my family to still be here next year… You know, you had a summer break with everybody pretending this really wasn’t a thing, and it is back in full force. And the numbers in the community are wildly out of control, and it’s only going to get worse.”
“Now is the time to wear your masks. Don’t have gatherings inside—and start asking questions about what’s happening and why we’re not doing better,” she added.