Watsonville Community Hospital nurses demonstrate against a waiver to nurse-to-patient ratio requirements on Wednesday.
Watsonville Community Hospital nurses demonstrate against a waiver to nurse-to-patient ratio requirements on Wednesday.
(Nick Ibarra / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Health & Wellness

Santa Cruz County nurses rally against policy change they say would add to patient overload

Nurses at Dominican and Watsonville hospitals insist that their hands are too full already as they deal with new risks, and new protocols, to treat surging numbers of COVID-19 patients.

Nurses lined the sidewalks in front of both Dominican Hospital and Watsonville Community Hospital on Wednesday afternoon, demonstrating against a pandemic-driven policy change that they say clears the path for the hospitals to overload them with patients.

“Our ratios are under attack right now,” said Cheryl Bartee, an ER nurse at Dominican Hospital. “This pandemic has sort of brought to light different types of inequities in our society, and one of them is that we’ve been making staffing decisions by profit.”

The state policy change, announced Friday, comes amid a moment of intense strain on California’s health care system. It responds to hospital administrators’ calls to ease restrictions on staffing ratios to address what they say is a dire workforce shortage amid the surging pandemic.

But nurses are responding that their hands are too full already as they deal with new risks, and new protocols, to treat surging numbers of COVID-19 patients.

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California first allowed hospitals to apply for waivers from those nurse-to-patient ratios in March. The waivers allow hospitals to assign three patients in critical condition to a single nurse, instead of two, or up to six non-critical patients, instead of four. The waivers are valid through March 2021.

Then, on Friday, the state rolled out an “expedited” application process — a move met with immediate ire from the nurses’ union, the California Nurses Association.

The union is accusing the hospital industry of exploiting the pandemic to pressure the state government into rolling back staffing safeguards — a move, union leaders say, that amounts to a cynical ploy to boost profits.

Hospital industry representatives have rejected that charge, calling it irresponsible and insisting that staffing shortages are at the heart of the issue.

Dan Brothman, the CEO of Watsonville Hospital-owner Halsen Healthcare, said Tuesday no decision had been made on the ratio waiver. He declined to comment on the topic in detail, framing it as a “political issue.”

A Dominican Hospital spokesperson did not address a question about whether the hospital may seek a waiver. However, Dominican Hospital President Nanette Mickiewicz said in a statement that the hospital recognizes the union’s right to engage in “informational picketing.”

“During the informational picket sessions, our hospital will remain open and all services will continue to be available,” Mickiewicz said.

On Wednesday, the nurses union organized demonstrations and other actions across California to put pressure on both hospitals and the state.

Driss Hassan, a telemetry nurse at Watsonville Community Hospital who demonstrated Wednesday, insisted there is no nursing shortage. “If the hospitals just hire more nurses, the nurses are there to be hired,” Hassan said.

Hassan lays blame for the ratio change at the feet of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who he called on to reverse course. “He signed that executive order waiving the staffing requirements,” Hassan said. “Now if Gavin Newsom has to go to the hospital, do you think he’s going to have a ratio of six-to-one?”

Watsonville Community Hospital ICU nurse Roseann Farris said managing even two critically ill COVID-19 patients can be overwhelming.

“That’s how our day is,” Farris said. “Basically, running from room to room throwing on our PPE and trying to save peoples lives.”

A nurse holds up a sign during a demonstration outside Watsonville Community Hospital on Wednesday.
(Nick Ibarra / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The nurses are supported by at least several Watsonville City Council members who attended the demonstration in person or could be seen driving by and honking their support.

In 2015, amid an earlier short-staffing fight, the Watsonville council had passed a resolution siding with the nurses union.

Contributing: Isabella Cueto, Kevin Painchaud.