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caption: Bremerton's St. Michael Medical Center, formerly known as Harrison Medical Center
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Bremerton's St. Michael Medical Center, formerly known as Harrison Medical Center
Credit: St. Michael Medical Center

Bremerton hospital workers: St. Michael, protect us from Covid-19

Washington state’s labor and health departments have launched separate investigations of conditions at the Bremerton hospital now suffering a Covid-19 outbreak.

Nursing assistant Rob Shauger apologized for having a hard time keeping it together.

He was up after his usual bedtime and running on almost no sleep after finishing his graveyard shift at St. Michael Hospital in Bremerton.

Shauger had been asked to speak with reporters at the last minute: His coworker who was going to speak had fallen ill with Covid-19.

“He is actively in the ER right now with breathing problems,” Shauger said.

At least 33 staff and 16 patients have tested positive for Covid-19 in an outbreak at the recently renamed hospital, known until June as Harrison Medical Center, according to the Kitsap Public Health District.

UFCW 21, the union representing healthcare workers at St. Michael, held a press conference to highlight equipment shortages, notification delays and other safety problems they see at St. Michael.

“We're dealing with potential exposures every day,” Shauger said. “I'm just scared for my coworkers,” Shauger said, his voice breaking, “and scared for myself.”

Front-line hospital workers said they’re short-staffed and underequipped.

More than 115 workers -- at least 5% of the hospital's staff -- have been quarantined after potentially coming into contact with the virus.

On Thursday, the hospital announced it was suspending all elective procedures.

Shauger said he learned of the outbreak at his own workplace when his brother in Marysville called him after seeing it on the evening news.

Kitsap Public Health declared the outbreak Aug. 14 and announced it to the public on Aug. 21.

“We’re wearing taped-up protective gear after five months,” nurse Cindy Franck said. “This is unacceptable and a serious problem.”

“Before Covid, you would use one mask per patient, but now we're using [masks] for multiple weeks,” emergency room technician Ona Burkett said.

“We have now [gotten] to the point the doctors have bought their own PPE and nurses buying their own PPE to be able to use because we don't have an adequate supply,” Burkett said, referring to masks and gear known as personal protective equipment.

On June 16, as Kitsap County was applying to move to Phase 3 from Phase 2 of the state’s pandemic reopening plan, Matthew Wheelus, the hospital’s chief operating officer, certified to the Washington Department of Health that “no staff person is wearing any one N95 respirator or surgical mask for longer than one shift.”

Workers at St. Michael said they are tested weekly for the coronavirus, but their results often take five days to get back.

“What we're told is that we're supposed to come to work if we don't have symptoms,” nurse Franck said.

“We need to go to rapid testing as soon as possible for our hospital and for our staff,” Shauger said. “If they can do it for the patients, why can't they do it for us?”

Sarah Ninivaggi, a public relations consultant for the hospital chain that owns St. Michael, declined KUOW’s request for an interview with a hospital official. She emailed a statement attributable to Cary Evans of CHI Franciscan:

“In accordance with CDC and public health guidelines to protect health care workers and patients, we provide PPE, including masks and eye protection, to every staff member working in our facilities. These are not normal times and PPE is in high demand worldwide. CHI Franciscan is well-provisioned with PPE at this time, and we share supplies as needed across facilities.”

Hospitals nationwide have had difficulty procuring masks and other protective equipment during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In Washington, hospitals report daily on their supplies of personal protective equipment to the state health department.

On June 10, St. Michael reported to the state that it had more than two weeks’ supplies of masks, gloves and gowns on hand but that it had run out of face shields and the astronaut-like helmets known as personal air-powered respirators.

Since June 12, the hospital has reported having more than two weeks' supply of all personal protective equipment except the helmet respirators, which dipped to 7 to 14 days of supply this week.

To be allowed to perform elective procedures, hospitals in Washington must have seven days of personal protective equipment on hand and have to notify workers within eight hours of Covid-19 exposures. Protective equipment also has to be discarded and replaced when it is soiled, damaged or hard to breathe through.

Union officials said that workers are not being notified of exposures within eight hours and that there are discrepancies between the supplies St. Michael reports to the state and what is available to front-line workers.

“They may be telling the state they have enough PPE, but that is not the experience that workers are having,” Sarah Cherin with UFCW 21 said.

In response to a complaint, the Washington Department of Labor and Industries launched an investigation in June into staff reportedly not being provided or fitted for proper protective equipment at the hospital. That investigation is ongoing.

The agency and the Washington Department of Health also launched investigations on Wednesday into St. Michael’s handling of its current outbreak.

In an email, Labor and Industries spokesperson Tim Church said his agency’s new inquiry responds to the outbreak and to “a complaint regarding allegations about rooms of Covid-19 patients not being clearly identified, and concerns over cleaning processes for ER rooms that had been used by Covid patients.”

Bremerton’s City General Hospital began as a makeshift site in a church during the global flu pandemic in 1918.

For most of the 20th century, it was known as Harrison Memorial Hospital.

A national hospital chain, Catholic Health Initiatives, bought Harrison in 2013. That chain, now known as CommonSpirit Health, has been rebranding its facilities with the names of Catholic saints.

Anna Boiko-Weyrauch contributed reporting.