Policies at Pennsylvania hospitals endangered patients, staff, whistleblowers say

Pennsylvania hospitals operated by Franklin, Tenn.-based Community Health Systems have struggled to protect staff and patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, 11 medical staff members told The Washington Post.

Eleven employees and union representatives were interviewed by the Post. Seven of the nurses, employed at two sister hospitals in Scranton, Pa., spoke anonymously for fear of reprisals by CHS.

A pregnant nurse at Scranton-based Moses Taylor Hospital said she had to split her time between the "COVID floor" and neonatal intensive care unit. One nurse said she asked a manager what the plan was if medical staff were sickened and was told, "We'll figure that out when that time comes." The hospital said employees have been told to report COVID-19 symptoms since mid-March, but nurses say managers ignored reported symptoms on more than one occasion.

Nurses said they were expected to wear one-use masks for five shifts last month. Some were told to disinfect the masks in between use with rubbing alcohol, while others were told to use one mask each time they treated a specific patient and put it in a paper bag until the next time. The hospital said it is following CDC guidance on the reuse of masks stored in paper bags. However, the recommendations condemn such reuse without sterilization.

Staff said they spoke with the Post because they considered the situation dangerous and were angry over CHS' alleged disorganization, carelessness and greed. They said many of their safety concerns were dismissed as recently as April 3, but on April 7, after the Post contacted CHS, the hospital announced several infection control policy changes.

The company urges employees to speak up about safety concerns and has a hotline where anonymous complaints can be made, according to Michael Brown, CEO of Moses Taylor Hospital and Regional Hospital of Scranton.

Nevertheless, employees said those who speak out have had to attend disciplinary meetings, had shift hours cut or had their schedules changed.

The unprecedented challenge has required frequent changes, and the hospital is following CDC guidelines, Mr. Brown said in a statement cited by the Post. The changes, which include designating an employee entrance and screening staff for fevers, were welcomed by Matthew Yarnell, president of Service Employees International Union Healthcare PA. However, he said in a statement, "It shouldn't take attention from a national media outlet to move CHS to put the safety of patients and frontline caregivers first."

Becker's reached out to Community Health Services, but did not receive a response at the time of publication.

More articles on infection control:
Shortage of protective gear leads hospitals to buy and keep faulty N95 masks
CMS updates infection control guidance on COVID-19
Extended use of N95s is safer than reuse, ECRI suggests

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