UPDATE: June 23, 2020: Riverside Community Hospital on Tuesday told Healthcare Dive the motivation behind the union’s strike notice “has very little to do with the best interest of their members and everything to do with contract negotiations.” The system said it has plans to ensure appropriate staffing and continued services for any type of event, including a strike.
Nurses at HCA Healthcare’s Riverside Community Hospital in south-central California issued a 10-day strike notice last week, citing a breakdown in discussions over safety and staffing, the union representing them said Monday.
The nurses plan to strike from Friday, June 26 through July 6, prior to starting contract negotiations with HCA on July 7. The union plans to push for better staffing and safety measures, particularly hospital preparedness during states of emergency.
Neither HCA nor Riverside were available for comment, but the hospital told Becker’s Hospital Review it had hoped the union “would not resort to these tactics” during the COVID-19 pandemic and said it had not laid off or furloughed any employees due to the crisis.
The strike notice follows a recent job posting from the nation’s biggest for-profit chain seeking qualified nurses in the Los Angeles area in the event of a job action or work stoppage.
Nurses at Riverside Community Hospital pushed for an improved staffing agreement last year and got it — but the hospital recently ended that agreement, resulting in fewer RNs taking care of more patients amid a pandemic, according to the union.
Insufficient personal protective equipment, inadequate safety measures and recycling of single-use PPE is also putting nurses at increased risk of COVID-19 infection, the union alleges.
Scores of RNs at the hospital have fallen ill with COVID-19, according to a release, including deaths of an environmental services worker and a lab technician, that “have not caused RCH to improve staffing or increase PPE.”
PPE shortages have been a problem at all of the 27 hospitals SEIU Local 121 RN represents, the union says. But a member survey found HCA hospitals were particularly unprepared for shortages. Only 27% of local 121 RN members at HCA hospitals reported having access to N95 respirators in their unit, significantly lower than other hospitals surveyed, according to the union.
Nashville-based HCA has received the most among for-profits in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding so far, about $1 billion. The amount is about 2% of HCA’s total 2019 revenue.
The 184-hospital system said it has not had to furlough employees like other systems have, though some employees have been redeployed or seen their hours and pay decrease. HCA implemented a program providing seven weeks paid time off at 70% of base pay that was scheduled to expire May 16, but has been extended through this week.
A spokesperson with the country’s largest nurses union, National Nurses United, told Healthcare Dive the program isn’t technically a furlough because some HCA nurses participating said they must remain on call or work rotating shifts.
NNU has also recently fought with HCA over other pandemic-related labor issues. Nurses at 15 HCA hospitals protested in late May over contractually bargained wage increases the hospital says it can’t deliver due to financial strains, asking nurses to give up the increases or face layoffs.
Another dispute involves a last-minute change mandating in-person voting for nurses deciding whether to form a union at HCA’s Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, according to an NNU release.
SEIU Local 121 RN said HCA can “easily weather this storm financially, continue to provide profits for their shareholders, while at the same time support and protect nurses as they fight this disease and fight to save their community.”
ProPublica deputy managing editor Charles Ornstein wanted to know why experts were wrong when they said U.S. hospitals would be overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients. Here’s what he learned, including what hospitals can do before the next wave.
The prediction from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was grim.
In late March, as the number of COVID-19 cases was growing exponentially in the state, Cuomo said New York hospitals might need twice as many beds as they normally have. Otherwise there could be no space to treat patients seriously ill with the new coronavirus.
“We have 53,000 hospital beds available,” Cuomo, a Democrat, said at a briefing on March 22. “Right now, the curve suggests we could need 110,000 hospital beds, and that is an obvious problem and that’s what we’re dealing with.”
The governor required all hospitals to submit plans to increase their capacity by at least 50%, with a goal of doubling their bed count. Hospitals converted operating rooms into intensive care units, and at least one replaced the seats in a large auditorium with beds. The state worked with the federal government to open field hospitals around New York City, including a large one at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.
But when New York hit its peak in early April, fewer than 19,000 people were hospitalized with COVID-19. Some hospitals ran out of beds and were forced to transfer patients elsewhere. Other hospitals had to care for patients in rooms that had never been used for that purpose before. Supplies, medications and staff ran low. And, as The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday, many New York hospitals were ill prepared and made a number of serious missteps.
All told, more than 30,000 New York state residents have died of COVID-19. It’s a toll worse than any scourge in recent memory and way worse than the flu, but, overall, the health care system didn’t run out of beds.
“All of those models were based on assumptions, then we were smacked in the face with reality,” said Robyn Gershon, a clinical professor of epidemiology at the NYU School of Global Public Health, who was not involved in the models New York used. “We were working without situational awareness, which is a tenet in disaster preparedness and response. We simply did not have that.”
Cuomo’s office did not return emails seeking comment, but at a press briefing on April 10, the governor defended the models and those who created them. “In fairness to the experts, nobody has been here before. Nobody. So everyone is trying to figure it out the best they can,” he said. “Second, the big variable was, what policies do you put in place? And the bigger variable was, does anybody listen to the policies you put in place?”
So, why were the projections so wrong? And how can political leaders and hospitals learn from the experience in the event there is a second wave of the coronavirus this year? Doctors, hospital officials and public health experts shared their perspectives.
The Models Overstated How Many People Would Need Hospital Care
The models used to calculate the number of people who would need hospitalization were based on assumptions that didn’t prove out.
Early data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested that for every person who died of COVID-19, more than 11 would be hospitalized. But that ratio was far too high and decreased markedly over time, said Dr. Christopher J.L. Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. IHME’s earliest models on hospitalizations were based on that CDC data and predicted that many states would quickly run out of hospital beds.
A subsequent model, released in early April, assumed about seven hospitalizations per death, reducing the predicted surge. Currently, Murray said, the ratio is about four hospital admissions per death.
“Initially what was happening and probably what we saw in the CDC data is doctors were admitting anybody they thought had COVID,” Murray said. “With time they started admitting only very sick people who needed oxygen or more aggressive care like mechanical ventilation.”
A model created by the Harvard Global Health Institute made a different assumption that also turned out to be too high. Data from Wuhan, China, suggested that about 20% of those known to be infected with COVID-19 were hospitalized. Harvard’s model, which ProPublica used to build a data visualization, assumed a hospitalization rate in the United States of 19% for those under 65 who were infected and 28.5% for those older than 65.
But in the U.S., that percentage proved much too high. Official hospitalization rates vary dramatically among states, from as low as 6% to more than 20%, according to data gathered from states by The COVID Tracking Project. (States with higher rates may not have an accurate tally of those infected because testing was so limited in the early weeks of the pandemic.) As testing increases and doctors learn how to treat coronavirus patients out of the hospital, the average hospitalization rate continues to drop.
New York state’s testing showed that by mid-April, approximately 20% of the adult population in New York City had antibodies to COVID-19. Given the number hospitalized in the city and adjusting for the time needed for the body to produce antibodies, this means that the city’s hospitalization rate was closer to 2%, said Dr. Nathaniel Hupert, an associate professor at Weill Cornell Medicine and co-director of the Cornell Institute for Disease and Disaster Preparedness.
Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, and his team also assumed that between 20% and 60% of the population would be infected with COVID-19 over six to 18 months. That was before stay-at-home orders took effect nationwide, which slowed the virus’s spread. Outside of New York City, a far lower percentage of the population has been infected. Granted, we’re not even six months into the pandemic.
A number of factors go into disease models, including the attack rate (the percentage of the entire population that eventually becomes infected), the symptomatic rate (how many people are going to show symptoms), the hospitalization rate for different age groups, the fraction of those hospitalized that will need intensive care and how much care they will need, as well as how the disease travels through the population over time (what is known as “the shape of the epidemic curve”), Hupert said.
Before mid-March, Hupert’s best estimate of the impact of COVID-19 in New York state was that it would lead to a peak hospital occupancy of between 13,800 to 61,000 patients in both regular medical wards and intensive care. He shared his work with state officials.
David Muhlestein, chief strategy and chief research officer at Leavitt Partners, a health care consulting firm, said one takeaway from COVID-19 is that models can’t try to predict too far into the future. His firm has created its own projection tool for hospital capacity that looks ahead three weeks, which Muhlestein said is most realistic given the available data.
“If we were held to our very initial projection of what was going to happen, everybody would be very wrong in every direction,” he said.
Hospitals Proved Surprisingly Adept at Adding Beds
When calculating whether hospitals would run out of beds, experts used as their baseline the number of beds in use in each hospital, region and state. That makes sense in normal times because hospitals have to meet stringent rules before they are able to add regular beds or intensive care units.
But in the early weeks of the pandemic, state health departments waived many rules and hospitals responded by increasing their capacity, sometimes dramatically. “Just because you only have six ICU beds doesn’t mean they will only have six ICU beds next week,” Muhlestein said. “They can really ramp that up. That’s one of the things we’re learning.”
Take Northwell Health, a chain of 17 acute-care hospitals in New York. Typically, the system has 4,000 beds, not including maternity beds, neonatal intensive care unit beds and psychiatric beds. The system grew to 6,000 beds within two weeks. At its peak, on April 7, the hospitals had about 5,500 patients, of which 3,425 had COVID-19.
The system erected tents, placed patients in lobbies and conference rooms, and its largest hospital, North Shore University Hospital, removed the chairs from its 300-seat auditorium and replaced them with a unit capable of treating about 50 patients. “We were pulling out all the stops at that point,” Senior Vice President Terence Lynam said. “It was unclear if the trend was going to go the other way. We did not end up needing them all.”
Northwell went from treating 49 COVID-19 inpatients on March 16 to 3,425 on April 7. “I don’t think anybody had a clear handle on what the ceiling was going to be,” Lynam said. As of Wednesday, the system was still caring for 367 COVID-19 patients in its hospitals.
As hospitals found ways to expand, government leaders worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to build dozens of field hospitals across the country, such as the one at the Javits Center. According to an analysis of federal spending by NPR, those efforts cost at least $660 million. “But nearly four months into the pandemic, most of these facilities haven’t treated a single patient,” NPR reported. As they began to come online, stay-at-home orders started producing results, with fewer positive cases and fewer hospitalizations.
Demand for Non-COVID-19 Care Plummeted More Than Expected
Hospitals across the country canceled elective surgeries, from hip replacements to kidney transplants. That greatly reduced the number of non-COVID-19 patients they had to treat. “We generated a lot more capacity by getting rid of elective procedures than any of us thought was possible,” Harvard’s Jha said.
Northwell canceled elective surgeries on March 16, and over the span of the next week and a half, its hospitals discharged several thousand patients in anticipation of the coming surge. “In retrospect, it was a wise move,” Lynam said. “It just ballooned after that. If we had not discharged those patients in time, there would have been a severe bottleneck.”
What’s more, experts say, it’s clear that some patients with true emergencies also stayed home. A recent report from the CDC said that emergency room visits dropped by 42% in the early weeks of the pandemic. In 2019, some 2.1 million people visited ERs each week from late March to late April. This year, that dropped to 1.2 million per week. That was especially true for children, women and people who live in the Northeast.
In New York City, emergency room visits for asthma practically ceased entirely at the peak, Cornell’s Hupert said. “You wouldn’t imagine that asthma would just disappear,” he said. “Why did it go away? … Nobody has seen anything like that.”
Undoubtedly some people experienced heart attacks and strokes and didn’t go to the hospital because they were fearful of getting COVID-19. “I didn’t expect that,” Jha said. A draft research paper available on a preprint server, before it is reviewed and published in an academic journal, found that heart disease deaths in Massachusetts were unchanged in the early weeks of the pandemic compared to the same period in 2019. What that may mean is that those people died at home.
The Coronavirus Attacked Every Region at a Different Pace
Some initial models forecast that COVID-19 would hit different regions in similar ways. That has not been the case. New York was hit hard early; California was not, at least initially.
Dr. Mark Rupp, medical director of the Department of Infection Control and Epidemiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said his region hasn’t seen a tidal wave like New York. “What we’ve seen is a rising tide, a steady increase in the number of cases.” Initially that was associated with outbreaks at specific locations like meatpacking and food processing plants and to some degree long-term care facilities.
But since then, “it has just plateaued,” he said. “That has me concerned. This is a time when I feel like we should be working as hard as we can to push these numbers as low as possible.”
Rupp’s hospital has been caring for 50 to 60 COVID-19 patients on any given day. The hospital has started to perform surgeries and procedures that had been on hold because “elective cases stay elective for only so long.”
The hospital’s general medical/surgical beds are 70% to 80% filled, and its ICU beds are 80% to 90% full. “We don’t have a big cushion.”
Even in New York City, the virus hit boroughs differently. Queens and the Bronx were hard hit; Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island less so. “Maybe we can’t even model a city as big as New York,” Hupert said. “Each neighborhood seemed to have a different type of outbreak.”
That needs further study but could be attributable to both social and demographic conditions and the type of jobs residents of the neighborhoods had, among other factors.
What We Can Learn From Coronavirus “Round One”
While hospitals were able to add beds more quickly than experts realized they could, some other resources were harder to come by. Masks, gowns and other personal protective equipment were tough to get. So were ventilators. Anesthesia agents and dialysis medications were in short supply. And every additional bed meant the need for more doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists.
In early February, before any cases were discovered in New York, Northwell purchased $5 million in PPE, ventilators and lab supplies just in case, Lynam said. “It turned out to be a wise move,” he said. “What’s clear is that you can never have enough.”
Northwell has spent $42 million on PPE alone. “We were going through 10,000 N95 masks a day, just a crazy amount,” he said. “One of the lessons learned is you have to stockpile the PPE. There’s got to be a better procurement process in place.”
If there’s one thing the system could have done differently, Lynam said, it’s bringing in more temporary nurses earlier. Northwell brought in 500 nurses from staffing agencies. “They came in a week later than they should have.”
Dr. Robert Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, agreed. “I’ve helped run services in hospitals for 25 years,” he said. “I’ve probably given two minutes of thought to the notions of supply chains and PPE. You realize that is absolutely central to your preparedness. That’s a lesson.”
Experts and hospital leaders agree that everyone can do better if another wave hits. Here’s what that entails:
Having testing readily available, as it now is, to more quickly spot a resurgence of the virus.
Stocking up now on PPE and other supplies. “We definitely have to stockpile PPE by the fall,” Gershon of NYU said. “We have to. … [Hospitals and health departments] have to really get those contracts nailed down now. They should have been doing this, of course, all the time, but no one expected this kind of event.”
Being able to quickly move personnel and equipment from one hot spot to the next.
Planning for how to care for those with other medical ailments but who are scared of contracting COVID-19. “We have to have some sort of a mechanism by which we can offer people assurance that if they come in, they won’t get sick,” Jha said. “We can’t repeat in the fall what we just did in the spring. It’s terrible for hospitals. It’s terrible for patients.”
Providing mental health resources for front-line caregivers who have been deeply affected by their work. The intensity of the work, combined with watching patients suffer and die alone, was immensely taxing.
Coming up with ways to allow visitors in the hospital. Wachter said the visitor bans in place at many hospitals, though well intentioned, may have backfired. “When all hell was breaking loose and we were just doing the best we could in the face of a tsunami, it was reasonable to just keep everybody out,” he said. “We didn’t fully understand how important that was for patients, how much it might be contributing to some people not coming in for care when they really should have.”
Lynam of Northwell said he’s worried about what lies ahead. “You look back on the 1918 Spanish flu and the majority of victims from that died in the second wave. … We don’t know what’s coming on the second wave. There may be some folks who say you’re paranoid, but you’ve got to be prepared for the worst.”
HCA is looking for qualified nurses in the event of a job action against its facilities in Los Angeles, such as a strike, according to a job posting from May 29. The giant hospital chain did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The country’s largest nurses union, National Nurses United, has recently disputed with the system over other pandemic-related labor issues. Nurses at 15 HCA hospitals protested in late May over contractually bargained wage increases the hospital says it can’t deliver due to financial strains, asking nurses to give up the increases or face layoffs.
Another dispute involves a last-minute change mandating in-person voting for nurses deciding whether to form a union at HCA’s Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, according to an NNU release.
Nashville-based HCA Healthcare, the largest among for-profit hospital operators, has received the most among for-profits in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding so far, about $1 billion. The amount is about 2% of HCA’s total 2019 revenue.
The 184-hospital system said it has not had to furlough any employees like other systems have, though some employees have been redeployed or seen their hours and pay decrease. HCA implemented a program providing seven weeks paid time off at 70% of base pay that was scheduled to expire May 16, but extended through June 27.
An NNU spokesperson told Healthcare Dive the program isn’t technically a furlough because some HCA nurses participating said they must remain on call or work rotating shifts.
The union spokesperson also confirmed that an email was sent to HCA nurses referring them to the strike-nurse job posting, which would offer more pay than their current roles.
“This really is a threat to nurses, and particularly insulting when you already have layoffs or cuts, if you don’t accept further concessions,” a union spokesperson told Healthcare Dive.
Nurses in California joined those in five other states at the end of May to protest HCA’s proposal to cut wage increases or impose layoffs.
At HCA’s Regional Medical Center in San Jose, California, NNU filed a suit to block the closure of the maternal-child care center, which it said is in violation of laws to protect the health and safety of the community. The closure proceeded anyway on May 30, followed by an announcement from Santa Clara County that the move may be jeopardizing the facility’s Level II Trauma designation agreement.
Across the country, frontline caregivers continue noting a lack of adequate personal protective equipment. The union’s executive director, Bonnie Castillo, will testify before Congress on Wednesday on protecting nurses during the pandemic and the dire need for optimal PPE.
Dozens of top recipients of government aid have laid off, furloughed or cut the pay of tens of thousands of employees.
HCA Healthcare is one of the world’s wealthiest hospital chains. It earned more than $7 billion in profits over the past two years. It is worth $36 billion. It paid its chief executive $26 million in 2019.
But as the coronavirus swept the country, employees at HCA repeatedly complained that the company was not providing adequate protective gear to nurses, medical technicians and cleaning staff. Last month, HCA executives warned that they would lay off thousands of nurses if they didn’t agree to wage freezes and other concessions.
A few weeks earlier, HCA had received about $1 billion in bailout funds from the federal government, part of an effort to stabilize hospitals during the pandemic.
HCA is among a long list of deep-pocketed health care companies that have received billions of dollars in taxpayer funds but are laying off or cutting the pay of tens of thousands of doctors, nurses and lower-paid workers. Many have continued to pay their top executives millions, although some executives have taken modest pay cuts.
The New York Times analyzed tax and securities filings by 60 of the country’s largest hospital chains, which have received a total of more than $15 billion in emergency funds through the economic stimulus package in the federal CARES Act.
The hospitals — including publicly traded juggernauts like HCA and Tenet Healthcare, elite nonprofits like the Mayo Clinic, and regional chains with thousands of beds and billions in cash — are collectively sitting on tens of billions of dollars of cash reserves that are supposed to help them weather an unanticipated storm. And together, they awarded the five highest-paid officials at each chain about $874 million in the most recent year for which they have disclosed their finances.
At least 36 of those hospital chains have laid off, furloughed or reduced the pay of employees as they try to save money during the pandemic.
Industry officials argue that furloughs and pay reductions allow hospitals to keep providing essential services at a time when the pandemic has gutted their revenue.
But more than a dozen workers at the wealthy hospitals said in interviews that their employers had put the heaviest financial burdens on front-line staff, includinglow-paid cafeteria workers, janitors and nursing assistants. They said pay cuts and furloughs made it even harder for members of the medical staff to do their jobs, forcing them to treat more patients in less time.
Even before the coronavirus swept America, forcing hospitals to stop providing lucrative nonessential surgery and other services, many smaller hospitals were on the financial brink. In March, lawmakers sought to address that with a vast federal economic stimulus package that included $175 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services to hand out in grants to hospitals.
But the formulas to determine how much money hospitals receive were based largely on their revenue, not their financial needs. As a result, hospitals serving wealthier patients have received far more funding than those that treat low-income patients, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
One of the bailout’s goals was to avoid job losses in health care, said Zack Cooper, an associate professor of health policy and economics at Yale University who is a critic of the formulas used to determine the payouts. “However, when you see hospitals laying off or furloughing staff, it’s pretty good evidence the way they designed the policy is not optimal,” he added.
The Mayo Clinic, with more than eight months of cash in reserve, received about $170 million in bailout funds, according to data compiled by Good Jobs First, which researches government subsidies of companies. The Mayo Clinic is furloughing or reducing the working hours of about 23,000 employees, according to a spokeswoman, who was among those who went on furlough. A second spokeswoman said that Mayo Clinic executives have had their pay cut.
Seven chains that together received more than $1.5 billion in bailout funds — Trinity Health, Beaumont Health and the Henry Ford Health System in Michigan; SSM Health and Mercy in St. Louis; Fairview Health in Minneapolis; and Prisma Health in South Carolina — have furloughed or laid off more than 30,000 workers, according to company officials and local news reports.
The bailout money, which hospitals received from the Health and Human Services Department without having to apply for it, came with few strings attached.
Katherine McKeogh, a department spokeswoman, said it “encourages providers to use these funds to maintain delivery capacity by paying and protecting doctors, nurses and other health care workers.” The legislation restricts hospitals’ ability to use the bailout funds to pay top executives, although it doesn’t stop recipients from continuing to award large bonuses.
The hospitals generally declined to comment on how much they are paying their top executives this year, although they have reported previous years’ compensation in public filings. But some hospitals furloughing front-line staff or cutting their salaries have trumpeted their top executives’ decisions to take voluntary pay cuts or to contribute portions of their salary to help their employees.
The for-profit hospital giant Tenet Healthcare, which has received $345 million in taxpayer assistance since April, has furloughed roughly 11,000 workers, citing the financial pressures from the pandemic. The company’s chief executive, Ron Rittenmeyer, told analysts in May that he would donate half of his salary for six months to a fund set up to assist those furloughed workers.
But Mr. Rittenmeyer’s salary last year was a small fraction of his $24 million pay package, which consists largely of stock options and bonuses, securities filings show. In total, he will wind up donating roughly $375,000 to the fund — equivalent to about 1.5 percent of his total pay last year.
A Tenet spokeswoman declined to comment on the precise figures.
The chief executive at HCA, Samuel Hazen, has donated two months of his salary to a fund to help HCA’s workers. Based on his pay last year, that donation would amount to about $237,000 — or less than 1 percent — of his $26 million compensation.
“The leadership cadre of these organizations are going to need to make sacrifices that are commensurate with the sacrifices of their work force, not token sacrifices,” said Jeff Goldsmith, the president of Health Futures, an industry consulting firm.
Many large nonprofit hospital chains also pay their senior executives well into the millions of dollars a year.
Dr. Rod Hochman, the chief executive of the Providence Health System, for instance, was paid more than $10 million in 2018, the most recent year for which records are available. Providence received at least $509 million in federal bailout funds.
A spokeswoman, Melissa Tizon, said Dr. Hochman would take a voluntary pay cut of 50 percent for the rest of 2020. But that applies only to his base salary, which in 2018 was less than 20 percent of his total compensation.
Some of Providence’s physicians and nurses have been told to prepare for pay cuts of at least 10 percent beginning in July. That includes employees treating coronavirus patients.
Stanford University’s health system collected more than $100 million in federal bailout grants, adding to its pile of $2.4 billion of cash that it can use for any purpose.
Stanford is temporarily cutting the hours of nursing staff, nursing assistants, janitorial workers and others at its two hospitals. Julie Greicius, a spokeswoman for Stanford, said the reduction in hours was intended “to keep everyone employed and our staff at full wages with benefits intact.”
Ms. Greicius said David Entwistle, the chief executive of Stanford’s health system, had the choice of reducing his pay by 20 percent or taking time off, and chose to reduce his working hours but “is maintaining his earning level by using paid time off.” In 2018, the latest year for which Stanford has disclosed his compensation, Mr. Entwistle earned about $2.8 million. Ms. Greicius said the majority of employees made the same choice as Mr. Entwistle.
HCA’s $1 billion in federal grants appears to make it the largest beneficiary of health care bailout funds. But its medical workers have a long list of complaints about what they see as penny-pinching practices.
Since the pandemic began, medical workers at 19 HCA hospitals have filed complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration about the lack of respirator masks and being forced to reuse medical gowns, according to copies of the complaints reviewed by The Times.
Ed Fishbough, an HCA spokesman, said that despite a global shortage of masks and other protective gear, the company had “provided appropriate P.P.E., including a universal masking policy implemented in March requiring all staff in all areas to wear masks, including N95s, in line with C.D.C. guidance.”
Celia Yap-Banago, a nurse at an HCA hospital in Kansas City, Mo., died from the virus in April, a month after her colleagues complained to OSHA that she had to treat a patient without wearing protective gear. The next month, Rosa Luna, who cleaned patient rooms at HCA’s hospital in Riverside, Calif., also died of the virus; her colleagues had warned executives in emails that workers, especially those cleaning hospital rooms, weren’t provided proper masks.
Around the time of Ms. Luna’s death, HCA executives delivered a warning to officials at the Service Employees International Union and National Nurses United, which represent many HCA employees. The company would lay off up to 10 percent of their members, unless the unionized workers amended their contracts to incorporate wage freezes and the elimination of company contributions to workers’ retirement plans, among other concessions.
Nurses responded by staging protests in front of more than a dozen HCA hospitals.
“We don’t work in a jelly bean factory, where it’s OK if we make a blue jelly bean instead of a red one,” said Kathy Montanino, a nurse treating Covid-19 patients at HCA’s Riverside hospital. “We are dealing with people’s lives, and this company puts their profits over patients and their staff.”
Mr. Fishbough, the spokesman, said HCA “has not laid off or furloughed a single caregiver due to the pandemic.” He said the company had been paying medical workers 70 percent of their base pay, even if they were not working. Mr. Fishbough said that executives had taken pay cuts, but that the unions had refused to take similar steps.
“While we hope to continue to avoid layoffs, the unions’ decisions have made that more difficultfor our facilities that are unionized,” he said. The dispute continues.
Apparently anticipating a strike, a unit of HCA recently created “a new line of business focused on staffing strike-related labor shortages,” according to an email that an HCA recruiter sent to nurses.
The email, reviewed by The Times, said nurses who joined the venture would earn more than they did in their current jobs: up to $980 per shift, plus a $150 “Show Up” bonus and a continental breakfast.
Continuing our series of Gist member convenings to discuss the “Brave New World” that awaits in the post-pandemic era, we brought together a group of senior human resources and nursing executives this week for a Zoom roundtable.
Several themes emerged from the discussion. First, there was general consensus that the COVID crisis exposed a workforce that had become over-specialized and inflexible. Said one chief nursing officer, “Our workforce is much more brittle than we thought.” A key lesson learned is the need for increased cross-training—especially for nurses, and especially in critical care. Systems should work now to increase the supply of nurses comfortable in an ICU environment to enable hospitals to flex staff across settings and roles to deal with future waves of the virus.
Not surprisingly, layoffs were top-of-mind for many. Executives were of one mind on the need to safeguard clinical staff as much as possible, and many systems are now considering deep cuts to management and administrative ranks: “It’s easier to stand in front of your clinical staff and be able to say you’ve stripped millions from administration before turning to clinical cuts.”
There was broad consensus for the potential for artificial intelligence and robotic process automation to enable greater reliability and productivity at lower cost in areas such as billing, coding, and even some clinical functions—and that the pandemic will accelerate plans to implement these solutions.
On a more optimistic note, one executive shared that “relationships between clinicians and administrators have never been stronger. The pandemic has forced us to have difficult and constructive conversations we would have never had the courage to have before.”
Another noted the pandemic has spotlighted new leadership talent who might otherwise have been overlooked, and plans are now in place to formally recognize and retain newly crisis-tested talent for the work of restructuring the system.
On the whole, the discussion was far more upbeat that we had expected—as difficult as the crisis has been for many teams, the opportunity to rethink old ways of doing business seems to have created renewed enthusiasm even in the face of daunting financial and operational challenges ahead.
Nurses at 15 HCA hospitals represented by National Nurses United protested last week, saying the for-profit hospital chain threatened layoffs. Nurses took to the sidewalks outside of their hospitals with signs, after they said they were told to expect cuts to benefits and staff if they didn’t give up negotiated wage increases.
In an emailed statement, HCA said it had no plans for layoffs.
“The facts are that non-represented colleagues across the HCA Healthcare enterprise are taking pay reductions and non-represented colleagues are giving up wage increases this year. HCA Healthcare has made these tough decisions in order to preserve jobs. To be equitable to all of our colleagues across the enterprise, we recently reached out to unions, with the hope that during this time of crisis, they would support the same measures for our unionized employees to minimize the impact on your compensation and employment status. … If the (National Nurses Organizing Committee) and/or (Service Employees International Union) reject our proposal, colleagues represented by these unions will no longer be eligible for continued pandemic pay, may be subject to layoffs and may face other benefit changes.”
Nurses interviewed by MedCity News said they were asked to give up other benefits.
Zoe Schmidt, a registered nurse who works at Research Medical Center in Kansas City, said they were also asked to forego their 401(k) matching for the year and shift differential pay, or increased compensation for nurses that work night and weekend shifts.
“We’ve been fighting back against that. At my hospital, it does seem like they’ve backed down on wage freezes and 401(k) matching (changes),” she said.
Though Schmidt hasn’t seen any evidence of impending layoffs, she said she was worried about staffing changes that could push the number of patients past four or five per nurse for the medical surgical unit where she works.
“We’re not overstaffed by any means,” she said.
Juan Anchondo, who has worked as an RN for 16 years at Las Palmas Medical Center in El Paso, Texas, said nurses were told to expect 10% layoffs.
“The way they word it, it sounds like layoffs are imminent,” he said. “They wouldn’t be specific to which departments or which hospital.”
In the last two weeks, as the hospital started to reopen, he said his medical-surgical unit quickly expanded from 20 beds to 26 beds.
“We were barely keeping up with what we could with 20 beds available,” he said. “All of a sudden, when we had four nurses scheduled on the floor, all of a sudden four nurses, is that enough to cover 26 beds?”
Like other hospital systems, HCA has seen reduced volumes during the Covid-19 pandemic, with canceled elective procedures and patients nervous to come into the hospital.
The health system’s revenue was up during the first quarter to $12.86 billion, but its profits were down nearly 45% from the same period in 2019, for a total of $581 million.
For employees affected by low patient volumes, HCA said it had been offering them pandemic pay, giving them 70% of their base pay for hours not worked.
To offset its losses, the company cut salaries for 11,000 of its corporate staff, suspended stock buybacks and its dividend, and delayed certain capital projects.
During the company’s first quarter earnings call, CFO Bill Rutherford said the company had received $700 million in CARES Act payments, as well as roughly $4 billion in accelerated Medicare payments and $75 million per month in deferred social security payroll taxes.
In an emailed statement, HCA said the negotiations with unions had solely been about their wage increases and the health system’s pandemic pay program.
“At a time when hundreds of hospitals across the country are laying off and furloughing employees, HCA Healthcare has not laid off or furloughed a single caregiver due to the pandemic and we hope to avoid doing so in the future,” the company said in an emailed statement. “Throughout the pandemic, our goal has been to protect our colleagues’ jobs and to continue the pandemic pay program for all, including those represented by labor unions. But the unions’ rigid position on wage increases means we will likely have to make other adjustments that will affect the colleagues they represent.”
National Nurses United represents 10,000 HCA nurses across six states.
Relatively few Americans say they have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or tested positive for coronavirus antibodies, but many more believe they may have been infected or say they personally know someone who has been diagnosed.
Only 2% of U.S. adults say they have been officially diagnosed with COVID-19 by a health care provider, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. And 2% say they have taken a blood test that showed they have COVID-19 antibodies, an indication that they previously had the coronavirus. But many more Americans (14%) say they are “pretty sure” they had COVID-19, despite not getting an official diagnosis. And nearly four-in-ten (38%) say they’ve taken their temperature to check if they might have the disease.
Although few Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19 themselves, many more say they know someone with a positive diagnosis. More than one-in-four U.S. adults (28%) say they personally know someone who has been diagnosed by a health care provider as having COVID-19. A smaller share of Americans (20%) say they know someone who has been hospitalized or who has died as a result of having the coronavirus.
Some groups are more likely than others to report personal experiences with COVID-19. For instance, black adults are the most likely to personally know someone who has been hospitalized or died as a result of the disease. One-third of black Americans (34%) know someone who has been hospitalized or died, compared with 19% of Hispanics and 18% of white adults. Black Americans (32%) are also slightly more likely than Hispanic adults (26%) to know someone diagnosed with COVID-19. Public health studies have found black Americans are disproportionately dying or requiring hospitalization as a result of the coronavirus.
Areas in the northeastern United States have recorded some of the highest rates of coronavirus cases and fatalities, and this is reflected in the Center’s survey. About four-in-ten adults living in the Northeast (42%) say they personally know someone diagnosed with COVID-19, significantly more than among adults living in any other region. People living in the Northeast (31%) are also the most likely to know someone who has been hospitalized or died as a result of the disease.
One aspect of personal risk for exposure to the coronavirus is whether someone is employed in a setting where they must have frequent contact with other people, such as at a grocery store, hospital or construction site. Given the potential for the spread of the coronavirus within households, risk to individuals is also higher if other members of the household are employed in similar settings. Among people who are currently employed full-time, 35% are working in a job with frequent public contact. Among those working part-time, almost half work (48%) in such a setting. For those living in a household with other adults, 35% report that at least one of those individuals is working in a job that requires frequent contact with other people.
Taken together, nearly four-in-ten Americans (38%) have this type of exposure – either currently working in a job that requires contact with others, living in a household with others whose jobs require contact, or both.
Hispanics (at 48%) are more likely than either blacks (38%) or whites (35%) to have this type of personal or household exposure. An earlier Center analysis of government data found Hispanic adults were slightly more likely to work in service-sector jobs that require customer interaction, and that are at higher risk of layoffs as a result of the virus. In fact, the current Center survey found Hispanics were among the most likely to have experienced pay cuts or job losses due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Interpersonal exposure in the workplace is also more widespread among younger adults. And there is a 10 percentage point difference between upper- and lower-income Americans in exposure, with lower-income adults more likely to work in situations where they have to interact with the public, or to live with people who do.
Health experts warn that COVID-19 is particularly dangerous to people who have underlying medical conditions. In the survey, one-third of adults say they have such a condition. Among this group, nearly six-in-ten (58%) say that the coronavirus outbreak is a major threat to their personal health. Among those who do not report having an underlying medical condition, just 28% see the outbreak as a major threat to their health. Americans who have an underlying health condition are also more likely than those who do not to say they’ve taken their temperature to check if they might have COVID-19 (47% vs. 33% of those without a health condition).
Self-reports of an underlying health condition vary greatly by age. Among those ages 18 to 29, just 16% say they have a condition; this rises steadily with age to 56% among those 65 and older. Whites are a little more likely than blacks and Hispanics to report having a health condition, but both blacks (at 54%) and Hispanics (52%) are far more likely than whites (32%) to say that the coronavirus outbreak is “a major threat” to their health.
Each person who has died of COVID-19 was somebody’s everything. Even as we mourn for those we knew, cry for those we loved and consider those who have died uncounted, the full tragedy of the pandemic hinges on one question: How do we stop the next 100,000?
The United States has now recorded 100,000 deaths due to the coronavirus.
It’s a moment to collectively grieve and reflect.
Even as we mourn for those we knew, cry for those we loved and consider also those who have died uncounted, I hope that we can also resolve to learn more, test better, hold our leaders accountable and better protect our citizens so we do not have to reach another grim milestone.
Through public records requests and other reporting, ProPublica has found example after example of delays, mistakes and missed opportunities. The CDC took weeks to fix its faulty test. In Seattle, 33,000 fans attended a soccer match, even after the top local health official said he wanted to end mass gatherings. Houston went ahead with a livestock show and rodeo that typically draws 2.5 million people, until evidence of community spread shut it down after eight days. Nebraska kept a meatpacking plant open that health officials wanted to shut down, and cases from the plant subsequently skyrocketed. And in New York, the epicenter of the pandemic, political infighting between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio hampered communication and slowed decision making at a time when speed was critical to stop the virus’ exponential spread.
COVID-19 has also laid bare many long-standing inequities and failings in America’s health care system. It is devastating, but not surprising, to learn that many of those who have been most harmed by the virus are also Americans who have long suffered from historical social injustices that left them particularly susceptible to the disease.
This massive loss of life wasn’t inevitable. It wasn’t simply unfortunate and regrettable. Even without a vaccine or cure, better mitigation measures could have prevented infections from happening in the first place; more testing capacity could have allowed patients to be identified and treated earlier.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not over, far from it.
At this moment, the questions we need to ask are: How do we prevent the next 100,000 deaths from happening? How do we better protect our most vulnerable in the coming months? Even while we mourn, how can we take action, so we do not repeat this horror all over again?
Here’s what we’ve learned so far.
Though we’ve long known about infection control problems in nursing homes, COVID-19 got in and ran roughshod.
From the first weeks of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, when the virus tore through the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington, nursing homes and long-term care facilities have emerged as one of the deadliest settings. As of May 21, there have been around 35,000 deaths of staff and residents in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, according to the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation.
Yet the facilities have continued to struggle with basic infection control. Federal inspectors have found homes with insufficient staff and a lack of personal protective equipment. Others have failed to maintain social distancing among residents, according to inspection reports ProPublica reviewed. Desperate family members have had to become detectives and activists, one even going as far as staging a midnight rescue of her loved one as the virus spread through a Queens, New York, assisted living facility.
What now? The risk to the elderly will not decrease as time goes by — more than any other population, they will need the highest levels of protection until the pandemic is over. The CEO of the industry’s trade group told my colleague Charles Ornstein: “Just like hospitals, we have called for help. In our case, nobody has listened.” More can be done to protect our nursing home and long term care population. This means regular testing of both staff and residents, adequate protective gear and a realistic way to isolate residents who test positive.
Racial disparities in health care are pervasive in medicine, as they have been in COVID-19 deaths.
African Americans have contracted and died of the coronavirus at higher rates across the country. This is due to myriad factors, including more limited access to medical care as well as environmental, economic and political factors that put them at higher risk of chronic conditions. When ProPublica examined the first 100 recorded victims of the coronavirus in Chicago, we found that 70 were black. African Americans make up 30% of the city’s population.
What now? States should make sure that safety-net hospitals, which serve a large portion of low-income and uninsured patients regardless of their ability to pay, and hospitals in neighborhoods that serve predominantly black communities, are well-supplied and sufficiently staffed during the crisis. More can also be done to encourage African American patients to not delay seeking care, even when they have “innocent symptoms” like a cough or low-grade fever, especially when they suffer other health conditions like diabetes.
Racial disparities go beyond medicine, to other aspects of the pandemic. Data shows that black people are already being disproportionately arrested for social distancing violations, a measure that can undercut public health efforts and further raise the risk of infection, especially when enforcement includes time in a crowded jail.
Essential workers had little choice but to work during COVID-19, but adequate safeguards weren’t put in place to protect them.
We’ve known from the beginning there are some measures that help protect us from the virus, such as physical distancing. Yet millions of Americans haven’t been able to heed that advice, and have had no choice but to risk their health daily as they’ve gone to work shoulder-to-shoulder in meat-packing plants, rung up groceries while being forbidden to wear gloves, or delivered the mail. Those who are undocumented live with the additional fear of being caught by immigration authorities if they go to a hospital for testing or treatment.
What now? Research has shown that there’s a much higher risk of transmission in enclosed spaces than outdoors, so providing good ventilation, adequate physical distancing, and protective gear as appropriate for workers in indoor spaces is critical for safety. We also now know that patients are likely most infectious right before or at the time when symptoms start appearing, so if workplaces are generous about their sick leave policies, workers can err on the side of caution if they do feel unwell, and not have to choose between their livelihoods and their health. It’s also important to have adequate testing capacity, so infections can be caught before they turn into a large outbreak.
Frontline health care workers were not given adequate PPE and were sometimes fired for speaking up about it.
While health workers have not, thankfully, been dying at conspicuously higher rates, they continue to be susceptible to the virus due to their work. The national scramble for ventilators and personal protective equipment has exposed the just-in-time nature of hospitals’ inventories: Nurses across the country have had to work with expired N95 masks, or no masks at all. Health workers have been suspended, or put on unpaid leave, because they didn’t see eye to eye with their administrators on the amount of protective gear they needed to keep themselves safe while caring for patients.
First responders — EMTs, firefighters and paramedics — are often forgotten when it comes to funding, even though they are the first point of contact with sick patients. The lack of a coherent system nationwide meant that some first responders felt prepared, while others were begging for masks at local hospitals.
What now? As states reopen, it will be important to closely track hospital capacity, and if cases rise and threaten their medical systems’ ability to care for patients, governments will need to be ready to pause or even dial back reopening measures. It should go without saying that adequate protective gear is a must. I also hope that hospital administrators are thinking about mental health care for their staffs. Doctors and nurses have told us of the immense strain of caring for patients whom they don’t know how to save, while also worrying about getting sick themselves, or carrying the virus home to their loved ones. Even “heroes” need supplies and support.
What we still have to learn:
There continue to be questions on which data is lacking, such as the effects of the coronavirus on pregnant women. Without evidence-based research, pregnant women have been left to make decisions on their own, sometimes trying to limit their exposure against their employer’s wishes.
Similarly, there’s a paucity of data on children’s risk level and their role in transmission. While we can confidently say that it’s rare for children to get very ill if they do get infected, there’s not as much information on whether children are as infectious as adults. Answering that question would not just help parents make decisions (Can I let my kid go to day care when we live with Grandma?) but also help officials make evidence-based decisions on how and when to reopen schools.
There’s some research I don’t want to rush. Experts say the bar for evidence should be extremely high when it comes to a vaccine’s safety and benefit. It makes sense that we might be willing to use a therapeutic with less evidence on critically ill patients, knowing that without any intervention, they would soon die. A vaccine, however, is intended to be given to vast numbers of healthy people. So yes, we have to move urgently, but we must still take the time to gather robust data.
Our nation’s leaders have many choices to make in the coming weeks and months. I hope they will heed the advice of scientists, doctors and public health officials, and prioritize the protection of everyone from essential workers to people in prisons and homeless shelters who does not have the privilege of staying home for the duration of the pandemic.
The coronavirus is a wily adversary. We may ultimately defeat it with a vaccine or effective therapeutics. But what we’ve learned from the first 100,000 deaths is that we can save lives with the oldest mitigation tactics in the public health arsenal — and that being slow to act comes with a terrible cost.
I refuse to succumb to fatalism, to just accepting the ever higher death toll as inevitable. I want us to make it harder for this virus to take each precious life from us. And I believe we can.
When President Trump took office in 2017, his team stopped work on new federal regulations that would have forced the health care industry to prepare for an airborne infectious disease pandemic such as COVID-19. That decision is documented in federal records reviewed by NPR.
“If that rule had gone into effect, then every hospital, every nursing home would essentially have to have a plan where they made sure they had enough respirators and they were prepared for this sort of pandemic,” said David Michaels, who was head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration until January 2017.
There are still no specific federal regulations protecting health care workers from deadly airborne pathogens such as influenza, tuberculosis or the coronavirus. This fact hit home during the last respiratory pandemic, the H1N1 outbreak in 2009. Thousands of Americans died and dozens of health care workers got sick. At least four nurses died.
Studies conducted after the H1N1 crisis found voluntary federal safety guidelines designed to limit the spread of airborne pathogens in medical facilities often weren’t being followed. There were also shortages of personal protective equipment.
“H1N1 made it very clear OSHA did not have adequate standards for airborne transmission and contact transmission, and so we began writing a standard to do that,” Michaels said.
HIV/AIDS rule set the standard for protecting workers
OSHA experts were confident new airborne infectious disease regulations would make hospitals and nursing homes safer when future pandemics hit. That’s because similar rules had already been created for bloodborne pathogens such as Ebola and hepatitis.
Those rules, implemented during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, forced the health care industry to adopt safety plans and buy more equipment designed to protect staff and patients.
But making a new infectious disease regulation, affecting much of the American health care system, is time-consuming and contentious. It requires lengthy consultation with scientists, doctors and other state and federal regulatory agencies as well as the nursing home and hospital industries that would be forced to implement the standard.
Federal records reviewed by NPR show OSHA went step by step through that process for six years, and by early 2016 the new infectious disease rule was ready. The Obama White House formally added it to a list of regulations scheduled to be implemented in 2017.
Then came the presidential election.
An emphasis on deregulation
In the spring of 2017, the Trump team formally stripped OSHA’s airborne infectious disease rule from the regulatory agenda. NPR could find no indication the new administration had specific policy concerns about the infectious disease rules.
Instead, the decision appeared to be part of a wider effort to cut regulations and bureaucratic oversight.
“Earlier this year we set a target of adding zero new regulatory costs onto the American economy,” Trump said in December 2017. “As a result, the never-ending growth of red tape in America has come to a sudden, screeching and beautiful halt.”
The impact on the federal effort to protect health care workers from diseases such as COVID-19 was immediate.
“The infectious disease standard was put on the back burner. Work stopped,” said Michaels, now a professor at George Washington University.
A medical worker is assisted into personal protective equipment on May 8 before stepping into a patient’s room in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
A deadly escalation of the H1N1 crisis
This spring, hospitals and nursing homes found themselves facing much of the same crisis they experienced during the H1N1 outbreak, with many facilities unprepared and unequipped. Only this time the scale was larger and deadlier.
The federal government reports that at least 43,000 front-line health care workers have gotten sick, many infected, while caring for COVID-19 patients in facilities where personal protective equipment was being rationed.
“Even just a few months ago, I couldn’t have imagined that I would have been on a Zoom call reading out the names of registered nurses who have died on the front lines of a pandemic,” said Bonnie Castillo, who heads the National Nurses United union.
“The memorial was not only about grief. It was also about anger.”
OSHA’s infectious disease rule debated in Washington
Castillo said Congress should immediately implement the infectious disease regulations shelved by the Trump administration as an emergency rule before a second wave of the coronavirus hits.
“Which obviously would mandate that employers have the highest level of PPE, not the lowest,” she said.
Democrats in the House of Representatives passed a bill in mid-May that would do so, but the Republican-controlled Senate has blocked the measure, and the White House still opposes the rules.
The Trump administration hasn’t responded to NPR’s repeated inquiries about the infectious disease rule. But in a briefing call with lawmakers this month, the current head of OSHA, Loren Sweatt, argued enough rules are already in place to protect workers.
“We have mandatory standards related to personal protective equipment and bloodborne pathogens and sanitation standards,” Sweatt said in a recording provided to NPR. “We have existing standards that can address this area.”
The hospital industry also opposes the new safety rules. Nancy Foster with the American Hospital Association said voluntary guidelines for airborne pandemics are adequate.
“You’re right; they’re not regulations, but they are the guidance that we want to follow,” Foster said. “They set forth the expectation for infection control, so in a sense they’re just like regulations.”
But the infectious disease standard would have required the health care industry to do far more. It sets out specific standards for planning and training. It would also have forced facilities to stockpile personal protective equipment to handle “surges” of sick patients such as the ones seen with COVID-19.
NPR also found the lack of fixed regulations allowed the Trump administration to relax worker safety guidelines. Federal agencies did so repeatedly this spring as COVID-19 spread and shortages of personal protective equipment worsened.
As a consequence, hospitals could say they were meeting federal guidelines while requiring doctors and nurses to reuse masks and protective gowns after exposure to sick patients.