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Workers say St. Michael Medical Center outbreak could have been prevented

Owen Morgan cleans carpets with an extractor, which vacuums and shampoos, during his shift at Harborview Medical Center on August 20, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

A group of workers at Bremerton’s St. Michael Medical Center say the COVID-19 outbreak there might have been prevented if they had better protective gear and were notified sooner.

To date, there are 45 patients and employees at St. Michael who have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of August. St. Michael Medical Center is part of CHI Franciscan’s system of hospitals and specialty clinics. The hospital’s name changed to St. Michael from Harrison Medical Center following a recent expansion.

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Fay Gunther with United Food & Commercial Workers Local 21 says the union filed more than one complaint about personal protective equipment, but the hospital did not respond adequately.

“We discussed workers at Harrison wearing damaged masks and that the employers were not adequately reporting their PPE,” Gunther said.

“This inability and unwillingness to invest in personal protective equipment is putting our workers and their communities at risk,” she added.

A spokesperson for the medical center says protective equipment is in high demand worldwide, but right now there is enough PPE at St. Michael and it is provided to all employees.

“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,” said Cary Evans, Vice President for Communications and Government Affairs at CHI Franciscan. “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.”

Union representatives said the outbreak is being poorly managed by the medical center, the state health department, and the Kitsap Public Health District.

“We do not believe that CHI Franciscan, DOH, or Kitsap Public Health have been doing enough to protect workers and patients,” said Sarah Cherin with UFCW Local 21.

“We know Aug. 10, workers had direct contact with a patient and that the workers were not notified,” Gunther added. “This is just unacceptable that workers are not notified when they’re exposed.”

Evans disputes that point, saying CHI Franciscan immediately notified public health authorities and began contacting staff and patients who were “impacted” as soon as the first test result for COVID-19 returned positive from a staff member. The cause of the outbreak and infection is being investigated.

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There are new and ongoing safety procedures in place at St. Michael Medical Center, Evans said, including: informing staff of PPE levels on a weekly basis since March; an employee notification process for identified exposures; universal masking for everyone in the hospital; meticulous hand hygiene; screening of all staff, visitors, and patients; and testing patients for COVID-19 72 hours before scheduled procedures and all patients before admittance.

The state health department says it is evaluating the workers’ complaints. KIRO Radio reached out to the Kitsap County health department for comment but has not received a response.

“We need our hospitals to do more, and we need our public health officials to hold them accountable,” Gunther said. “Our very lives depend on it.”

The KIRO Radio Newsdesk contributed to this report.

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