Hospital may close for mold cleanup

Times Staff Writer

Operators of Oxnard's St. John's Regional Medical Center, which has the busiest emergency room in Ventura County, have approved temporary closure of the facility in August so it can be tented and fumigated for mold.

Directors of the hospital's parent company, San Francisco-based nonprofit Catholic Healthcare West, approved plans this week to stop accepting patients Aug. 8. Existing patients will be transferred to other area hospitals.

The California Department of Health Services must still give final approval for the closure.

St. John's is also awaiting the green light from the state to fumigate using chlorine dioxide, which county health officials said has never been used in California for medical facility applications.

Chlorine dioxide is a gas that does not occur naturally in the environment.

It is used as a bleaching agent at paper manufacturing plants and is added to drinking water to protect people from harmful bacteria and other microorganisms, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Hospital officials hope that the fumigation will eradicate a mold problem that has plagued the 265-bed hospital for most of its 15 years of operation.

In 1996, Catholic Healthcare West sued the general contractor, Centex Rodgers, alleging that shoddy construction work allowed water to seep into the building's interior and led to mold infestation.

In 2003, St. John's filed a second lawsuit against the contractor and several other firms after repairs failed to solve the problem.

Mission Viejo toxicologist Harry Skalsky was hired by the hospital to assess the fungal contamination.

He testified last fall that he found potentially harmful levels of Stachybotrys spores. The presence of the spores "may lead to or exacerbate allergic reactions and/or cause toxic effects or infections," Skalsky wrote in a court declaration.

After years of failed remediation efforts, hospital officials said tenting the facility for fumigation seemed to be the best solution for eliminating the mold problem.

"Our current remediation process has been long and limits our capacity to provide healthcare in the county," said hospital spokeswoman Rita O'Connor, adding that no one has become ill from the mold spores. "This will allow us to treat the whole hospital at once."

Barry Fisher, administrator of Ventura County's emergency medical services agency, said treating more than 100 emergency patients daily -- or about 45,000 visits a year -- gives St. John's the busiest ER in the area.

The closure for much of August "is going to have a ripple effect on all hospitals around the county, along with fire departments, paramedic services and ambulances," he said. "Those patients are going to have to go elsewhere."

During the closure, Fisher's office plans to oversee a daily conference call of officials at the county's eight hospitals to ensure that any emergency issues are properly dealt with as they arise.

Brandon Ober, a director at Gold Coast Ambulance in Oxnard, said his firm would increase its staffing about 60% during St. John's closure because of the increased time needed to get patients to hospitals in Camarillo, Ojai, Santa Paula, Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks and Ventura.

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