Maureen Dwyer addresses a small group of journalists in front of Dominican Hospital.
Maureen Dwyer, a registered nurse in the surgical services department, addresses a small group of journalists in front of Dominican Hospital.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

Here ‘to spread care, not COVID’: Dominican nurses frustrated with hiring delays, new state guidelines

The national nurses union, which represents about 670 nurses from Dominican Hospital, held a day of action Thursday. Local healthcare workers said more nurses need to be hired and said they’re concerned the hospital may implement looser COVID guidelines as recently allowed by the state. The hospital responded it has sped up its hiring process and nothing, as yet, has changed.

Jen Powers is a registered nurse who provides care to patients in a medical-surgical unit recovering from COVID-19 at Dominican Hospital on Soquel Drive.

“On my unit we’ve been taking four COVID patients at a time for over a year, and for over a year we have maintained that that is a very unsafe situation,” she said, dressed in scrubs and speaking outside of the hospital during a break Thursday morning.

She and several other nurses, members of the California Nurses Association chapter of National Nurses United, participated in the national day of action demanding that hospital management address what they say are unsafe working conditions and staffing levels.

The union represents about 670 nurses at the hospital. Nurses from hospitals in New York to Texas and Georgia, among others, were scheduled to participate, according to a National Nurses United news release.

The hospital, however, says it’s working on filling open positions and has made changes to improve the onboarding of new hires.

“In addition, we continue to augment our staffing by utilizing [traveling nurses], local workforce resources, and by working with the state to utilize contracted staff resources in clinical areas,” according to a statement from Dignity Health Dominican Hospital.

“We’re here today because we want to bring the attention to the public and our community of the staffing crisis and management incivility at Dominican, as we are all unsafe with the current COVID guidelines, adopted by CDPH and CDC,” said Maureen Dwyer, a nurse at the hospital since 1997.

The guidance from California Department of Public Health, in place until Feb. 1, allows healthcare workers to return to work without testing if they are asymptomatic after five days of isolation. This follows similar language from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the statement, the hospital said the more strict isolation and testing protocols are still in use, but acknowledged “we may need to adopt this approach in the near future.” Doing so would happen “only if the hospital is facing a more serious staffing shortage that would jeopardize its ability to provide care.”

The American Medical Association also criticized the guidelines,.

“With hundreds of thousands of new cases daily and more than a million positive reported cases on Jan. 3, tens of thousands — potentially hundreds of thousands of people — could return to work and school infectious if they follow the CDC’s new guidance on ending isolation after five days without a negative test,” the AMA statement says. “Physicians are concerned that these recommendations put our patients at risk and could further overwhelm our healthcare system.”

As for the staffing, Dywer said the hospital has posted 70 positions in the last six months, and they’ve been able to fill a small number of those. A hospital spokesperson couldn’t immediately verify how many hires have been made.

Jackie Stallings speaks in front of a group of journalists on Thursday Jan. 13 in front of Dominican Hospital.
Jackie Stallings, a nurse in the cardiac unit, speaks in front of a group of journalists on Thursday Jan. 13 in front of Dominican Hospital.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

National Nurses United President Zenei Triunfo-Cortez said describing the staffing crisis as a shortage is inaccurate, according to a release.

“Our employers claim there is a ‘nursing shortage,’ and that’s why they must flout optimal isolation times, but we know there are plenty of registered nurses in this country,” said Triunfo-Cortez. “There is only a shortage of nurses willing to work in the unsafe conditions created by hospital employers and this government’s refusal to impose lifesaving standards. So this is a vicious cycle where weakening protections just drives more nurses away from their jobs.”

A nurse who works in Dominican Hospital’s cardiac unit, Jackie Stallings, said the new isolation guidance is harmful for staff and patients.

“With the newly released CDC COVID isolation guidelines, you will see a huge increase in our healthcare workers’ illnesses and deaths,” said Stallings. “Nurses want to spread care, not COVID. We demand Gov. Newsom take immediate action to protect health care workers.”

In October, the World Health Organization said more needs to be done to protect healthcare workers from COVID-19 and to lower the risk of infection in the workplace. In the United States, about 3,600 health care workers died during the first year of the pandemic, according to Kaiser Health News.

Powers said more than burnout, the staffing crisis amid the pandemic is causing moral distress.

“We care about our patients so we keep coming back. And we’re feeling really fatigued and tired. It’s hard to do the job when you’re here because the job is way more intense, especially for me today,” she said. “I took one drink of water before I came out to talk to you, but that’s pretty much all I’ve done to take care of myself since 7 a.m. And I’ll be doing that till 3:30. It just gets old, you can’t do that for that long, but we’re trying”