A spike in COVID-19 cases is happening among the staff at Zuckerberg SF General Hospital, and neither there nor at Kaiser Permanente's hospital in San Francisco are nurses — some of whom deal with COVID-positive patients — getting mandatory, regular tests themselves. Why?
"You should be alarmed if nurses are speaking up if they don’t feel safe," says SF General ER nurse Christa Duran, speaking to the Chronicle.
And when SFist contacted an ER nurse at Kaiser who preferred to remain anonymous, they confirmed that regular testing is not occurring among the staff there, as a policy — and there is an ongoing shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) of various kinds. "You have to be showing symptoms or you can't get a test," this nurse said. This nurse also said that they had attended two funerals for COVID-positive coworkers in the last two months.
The Chronicle reports via an internal memo from SF General Chief Executive Officer Dr. Susan Ehrlich that there has been a 50-percent uptick in positive cases among hospital staff between June 27 and July 6, for a total of 46 cumulative cases. Ehrlich's memo confirmed that not all employees at the hospital are being tested regularly. Nurses and doctors at the hospital are now asking for rapid tests to be made available to them so that they do not have to seek testing through their own doctors on their own time.
"They’re not thinking ahead," says SF General psychiatric nurse Shamideh Engel, speaking to the Chronicle. "They’re thinking after the fact that things happen.”
The hospital has reportedly created a new break room for nurses and staff to allow for more distancing space, but it's nonetheless an indoor space where people are eating meals without masks on. Duran tells the Chronicle that she started eating her lunch in an outdoor garden space back in March when a coworker tested positive.
“San Francisco has done a pretty damn good job of maintaining that safety net compared to the rest of the state, but we can do even better," says Engel to the paper.
But after the city made it a policy two months ago to test every employee and resident at the city's 21 nursing homes and assisted living facilities every 14 days, why aren't staff at city hospitals doing the same precautionary, mandatory testing?
The SF General memo suggests that most of the positive cases among staff were cases of community transmission outside the workplace, and it urged everyone to be "vigilant" in not attending unsafe social gatherings. "Based on information to date, we suspect the large majority of recent cases we are discovering at work may have been acquired in the community," the memo says. "While we are not surprised in the surge, we do want to ensure that everyone is taking every precaution to stay safe and healthy."
Hospitals in SF have since March been screening employees before they begin their shifts, but mandatory testing does not seem to be a part of this. (UCSF explains their screening process here.) As the Kaiser nurse explained to SFist, an epidemiologist at Kaiser has deemed regular testing of asymptomatic staff unnecessary given the fact that current swab tests are only about 70 percent accurate.
No figures have been published regarding positive cases among UCSF or Kaiser staff. UCSF published a notice about two staff members testing positive way back on March 14, and we have since heard directly from two UCSF doctors about their cases — including a professor and director of primary care who's one of the rare "persistently positive" cases who tested positive multiple times over 90 days.
Frontline workers were hard hit in New York City in March and April, but the same volume of stories have not come to the Bay Area about doctors and nurses falling sick or dying.
The Washington Post three weeks ago published profiles of a couple dozen of the hundreds of healthcare workers who have died since the pandemic began in multiple U.S. cities, including people in their 30s and 40s. At the time, the country's largest nurses union, National Nurses United, said that over 900 healthcare workers have died so far of COVID-19.
Way back in January, while President Trump was still ignoring the coming pandemic, National Nurses United sent a letter to hospitals urging them to gather large supplies of PPE like eye coverings and N95 masks, but now we remain with a nationwide shortage of these things.