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Fountain Valley Regional Hospital union calls for vote of no confidence as state probes virus response

A protester outside Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center
Pharmacy tech Jasmine Nguyen wears a “vote no confidence” sticker during a protest outside Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center on Thursday.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Frontline workers at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital — where one nurse who treated COVID-19 patients reportedly died and several employees have been infected by or exposed to the coronavirus — are calling for a vote of no confidence in CEO Kenneth McFarland.

Surveyors with the California Department of Public Health are investigating the 293-bed facility after the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) filed a July 1 complaint alleging unsafe working conditions and an improper response to concerns of employees’ repeated exposure to the virus.

“The hospital has failed to develop and implement effective infection control procedures and practices in order to reduce the risk of the transmission of [SARS-CoV-2], the virus that causes the coronavirus disease COVID-19,” the complaint stated.

The document further alleges the facility violates portions of California Code that outline requirements for hospitals and states employees should receive appropriate training on infection control policies and procedures.

In a demonstration Thursday outside the hospital’s emergency department, NUHW representatives urged their 734 members to vote and voice their concerns about administrators they say aren’t doing enough to protect patients and staff.

Employees march Thursday outside the Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center
Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center employees march Thursday in a demonstration organized by the National Union of Healthcare Workers to protest administration’s response to employees’ coronavirus exposure and requests for more testing.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

“We are asking Fountain Valley staff to vote no confidence in the administration because we believe they will not go above the bare minimum,” operating room employee and union shop steward Ron Rosano said to a crowd of about 50. “They must work to earn the trust and the respect of the frontline caregivers.”

Employees say they have collectively and individually contacted hospital leadership about the lack of proper virus testing and contact tracing following incidents of exposure.

In a survey conducted by NUHW, 93% of employee respondents said they did not believe the hospital was doing enough to keep patients safe from infection, while 75% said they have been required to treat infected and uninfected patients while wearing the same personal protective equipment.

On Thursday, Orange County reported 32 new coronavirus deaths, a single-day record that brings the countywide death total to 697.

Employees at Thursday’s demonstration said the hospital will not test employees who do not exhibit symptoms, even when they’ve come into contact with patients and co-workers who soon after tested positive for the virus.

Protesters outside Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center
Union employees at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center are calling for a vote of no confidence in CEO Kenneth McFarland, alleging the hospital is failing to follow effective infection control practices and procedures.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Josh Jesus, a CT Tech in the radiology department, said a colleague was infected and hospitalized with COVID-19 in late June. When employees who’d worked with the man requested testing, they were sent home to self-quarantine and given a list of Orange County testing sites.

“We asked for (onsite) testing, and they said, ‘What if all 500 employees came in one day?’” Jesus said. “What about testing people who just got exposed? That’s why we’re heading down this path — we have zero confidence they’re doing everything they can to protect employees and patients.”

Staff say patients are not tested upon arrival if they do not present symptoms. Union members have requested all newly admitted patients and employees who have been exposed to the virus be tested onsite. They are also asking that all patients wear facial coverings.

Barbara Lewis, NUHW’s Southern California hospital division director, who helped draft the July 1 complaint, said the state Department of Public Health opened an investigation into Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center the following day.

 Rabbi Stephen J. Einstein, former board member of Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center
Rabbi Stephen J. Einstein address employees Thursday outside Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center, where state surveyors are investigating the facility’s coronavirus infection-control procedures.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Surveyors made multiple visits to the facility late last month and conducted closed-door interviews with employees and administrators, Lewis said. Before those visits, COVID-19 patients were being seen in several different units of the facility, potentially exposing uninfected patients. Now they are being treated in a unit cordoned off from the general population.

“That is major progress, and it happened because of the complaint our members filed,” Lewis said. “We had been meeting with management since mid-March, and this was one of our key issues, but management would not make the changes.”

Lewis said one nurse who worked in a unit treating COVID-19 patients became infected and died on June 5. The complaint indicated “nearly a dozen” employees had tested positive so far, but exact numbers are unknown and are not being reported by administrators.

McFarland’s office declined a request for an interview, responding instead with a statement in which it stated the facility is following guidelines issued by the California Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We worked collaboratively with the surveyors and quickly implemented some changes to address the issues they raised,” the statement said. “While we value all of our employees who are represented by the NUHW, we are disappointed that the union is taking this action.”

COVID-19-positive patients may be kept in the same unit as uninfected patients, the statement continued, but are placed in separate rooms with closed doors and posted signage. As a further precaution, infection control personnel are ensuring personal protective equipment is being worn and discarded in a safe manner.

Jennifer Carter, a telemetry nurse at Fountain Valley Regional for the past 25 years, came to Thursday’s demonstration as a show of support, though she and fellow nurses are not represented by NUHW but by the United Nurses Associations of California.

She said she knows five employees from different units who’ve tested positive for the virus and described the COVID-19-unit nurse who died in June as an older individual at high risk of infection who was “on a ventilator for quite a while.”

“There’s a lot of fear — of getting COVID-19, bringing it home to family, giving it to patients,” Carter said of employees’ desire for more testing. “Every patient who comes into the emergency room should be tested. If they leave our ER, but they’re asymptomatic, they’re going to go out and spread it.”

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