Hospital gets OK to close ER to fight mold

Times Staff Writer

In an 11th hour move, the state Tuesday granted approval to St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Oxnard to shut down its emergency room at 7 a.m. today as part of a temporary closure to allow the hospital to prepare for mold fumigation.

The entire 265-bed hospital, which operates the busiest emergency room in Ventura County, will eventually close this month for two weeks in hopes of eradicating a mold problem that has plagued the hospital for most of its 15 years of operation.

In a letter signed Tuesday, Betty J. Smith, district administrator for the California Department of Public Health, said the department had approved St. John’s emergency room closure. Other departments will close over the next week, starting with the intensive care unit.

On Aug. 14, all remaining patients will be transferred to other county hospitals so the facility can be tented.

Smith told hospital officials she wants to be notified immediately if they deviate from the plan.


She also said a request in writing to reopen the hospital would be required, along with an on-site visit “to determine whether the hospital is prepared for the care of patients.”

St. John’s President T. Michael Murray said last week he was confident the hospital would receive a green light from the state in time to adhere to the scheduled closure time-line, which had been discussed with area healthcare providers and planned for months.

Barry Fisher, administrator of Ventura County’s emergency medical services agency, said St. John’s daily treats more than 100 emergency patients, who will have to be re-routed to other facilities.

“Certainly, the other hospitals are going to feel the impact of this, just how much we don’t know.” Fisher said Tuesday. “They tell us that August is a slow time of the year, that’s why they picked it.”

Fisher said the county’s private ambulance companies have added units to help transport emergency patients to other hospitals, including Ventura County Medical Center and Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura; St. John’s Pleasant Valley Hospital in Camarillo; Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks; and facilities in the San Fernando Valley.

Sheila Murphy, spokeswoman for the county’s Health Care Agency, which operates Ventura County Medical Center, said officials are confident the closure of St. John’s will go smoothly.

“We’ll be able to add equipment and staff to the other facilities, and move things around as needed,” Murphy said. “We’re prepared for it.”

As part of the plan to cope with the temporary closure, county clinics in Oxnard also are extending service hours and making other changes to accommodate extra patients.

Meanwhile, St. John’s has yet to receive approval for its mold eradication plan from the state Department of Pesticide Regulation, which oversees the use of the chlorine dioxide gas that would be used in the fumigation.

The department informed the hospital last week that its emergency request would not be judged until after a 30-day period set aside for public comment. That period won’t conclude until Aug. 16, the day that St. John’s contractor hopes to begin tenting the 365,000-square-foot main hospital building.

The chance of this second required approval arriving in time to prevent a delay are slim, said Glenn Brank, a department spokesman.

Murray has said the hospital’s plans are flexible enough to accommodate a few added days of closure, despite the obvious strain it could cause on the other healthcare providers in the region.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has said that chlorine dioxide is approved as a sporicide, but has been used only on an emergency basis for remediation of mold and mildew.

Murray said this untried method should allow the hospital to completely cure its mold problem by next spring, rather than taking five years using traditional methods.

“The current process requires us to have 45 beds out of service, which we would have had to do for another five years,” Murray said. “This reduces it to less than a year, potentially less than eights months, to have a mold-free institution.”