California’s move toward regular COVID-19 testing for healthcare workers a relief to those on front lines

An employee speaks at a July 2 rally outside Fountain Valley Regional Hospital & Medical Center.
An employee speaks at a July 2 rally outside Fountain Valley Regional Hospital & Medical Center, one of several held to raise awareness of the need for COVID-19 protections.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Following numerous rallies and demonstrations among California healthcare workers for more workplace protections against a swiftly surging coronavirus, state health officials have released guidelines recommending hospitals regularly screen employees and newly admitted patients for COVID-19.

In a Nov. 25 all-facilities letter issued by California Public Health Department, Deputy Director Heidi Steinecker strongly recommended general acute care hospitals implement a weekly screening testing program for all healthcare workers by Dec. 14.

Employees determined to be at high risk of contracting the virus should be tested starting next week, the letter states.

“Routine SARS-CoV-2 screening testing of hospital healthcare personnel may aid in early detection and work exclusion of infected healthcare providers, reduce transmission of risk to other healthcare providers and patients and prevent hospital outbreaks,” Steinecker wrote.

The guidance advises new patients and employees who may be exhibiting symptoms of the virus to receive immediate COVID-19 testing. Hospitals must by Monday submit testing plans identifying the number of at-risk and total employees and explaining how they will test for, report and trace positive cases.

Those directives align with proposals put before the state by leaders of the National Union for Healthcare Workers (NUHW), who have organized demonstrations highlighting the need for coronavirus protections, including several at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital & Medical Center.

A Nov. 24 rally at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital & Medical Center
Irene Santos, daughter of Armando Rodriguez, at a Nov. 24 rally demanding stronger COVID-19 protections for caregivers and patients at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

That was where, on Nov. 23, workers rallied to memorialize Armando Rodriguez, an imaging aide who reported being exposed to the virus in his Santa Ana home in July and was told to continue working and check for symptoms.

Barbara Lewis, NUHW’s Southern California hospital division director, said Tuesday union representatives were pleased state health officials had acted on behalf of the safety of frontline workers.

“There’s absolutely no doubt healthcare workers, as a result of this, will be safe,” she added. “And when healthcare workers are safe, that means patients are safe and communities are safer.”

The union leader praised the courage of employees who stood up and risked their jobs to expose inadequacies at their respective hospitals. A July 1 complaint filed on behalf of Fountain Valley Regional Hospital employees, for example, triggered a state investigation into the site’s COVID-19 policies and practices that resulted in systemic improvements.

Pharmacy tech Jasmine Nguyen at an Aug. 6 rally outside Fountain Valley Regional Hospital & Medical Center.
Pharmacy tech Jasmine Nguyen during an Aug. 6 rally outside Fountain Valley Regional Hospital & Medical Center, where employees called for more COVID-19 worker protections.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

“They knew what was happening and they knew it wasn’t good enough for patient care,” Lewis said. “When we talk about healthcare heroes — this was their heroic act.”

Josh Jesus, a CT scan tech at the Fountain Valley facility, was one of several employees who participated in rallies held in July and August. He self-quarantined in late June after a coworker was hospitalized with COVID-19. Hospital supervisors refused to test the exposed workers.

“That’s the kind of thing we’re trying to prevent,” Jesus said Tuesday. “I feel the [guidance] is going to make an impact. Patients coming in will know workers are being tested — and it’s going to help us feel a lot safer.”

Todd Burke, a spokesman for Tenet Healthcare, which owns and operates Fountain Valley Regional Hospital, said officials were aware of the recommendations and in the process of evaluating them. The hospital, he said, employs some 2,200 employees. It is unclear whether a funding source has been identified to help facilities implement testing plans.

In a release issued Monday, NUHW President Sal Rosselli acknowledged the new recommendations will ultimately save lives but said more employee groups working in high-risk areas outside hospitals should also receive regular testing.

“Gov. Newsom deserves credit for recognizing the urgency of the problem and taking decisive action to finally make hospitals test all workers and patients upon admission,” Rosselli said. “[But] we still need to expand testing requirements to caregivers in home health settings and in correctional facilities where outbreaks continue unabated.”

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