One by one, nurses got coronavirus at a Silicon Valley hospital while management kept quiet

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MILLBRAE, Calif. — The first to get sick was a woman in the nurse staffing office, who died in mid-March after a girls’ trip to Las Vegas with some hospital colleagues.

A nursing manager fell ill next, followed by a nurse on the night shift and then a day supervisor. A short time later, a day-shift nurse went out and then a temp.

At the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, the nurses on a second-floor medical-surgical unit kept the grim tally in furtive texts and emails: Six women who had worked on their ward or visited it in the course of their duties had developed symptoms of the coronavirus. Four reported testing positive, one had yet to be tested and one was dead.

Yet from the hospital administration, the worried employees said they heard nothing about what appeared to be an outbreak of the virus within the hospital’s walls. There was no official acknowledgment of the cases, and nurses who shared phone headsets, computer keyboards and a tiny break room were not tested, according to interviews and correspondence reviewed by the Los Angeles Times.

The frustration boiled over this week with an anonymous whistleblower complaint to Santa Clara County, which runs the hospital.

“Management is not communicating confirmed positive cases — information that would enable potentially-exposed/infected staff to take extra precautionary measures to not affect their loved ones at home and elsewhere,” stated a complaint signed, “employees not treated responsibly from within.”

The hospital’s compliance office has now launched an investigation.

A spokesman for the county health system, Maury Kendall, said in a statement that “some of our healthcare workers have tested or will test positive for COVID-19 and are out sick.” He said, though, that administrators were unaware of any deaths in the hospital ranks from the virus and declined to answer specific questions about the administration’s handling of the situation in the 2 Medical ward.

“We cannot comment on pending investigations, or on personnel matters, except to say that we dispute the allegations presented,” Kendall said.

Silicon Valley has been one of the hardest-hit parts of California with Santa Clara County reporting more than 1,440 confirmed cases and 47 deaths. Of the confirmed cases, 109 have been healthcare workers, according to state data. Valley Medical Center, the region’s flagship public hospital, has cared for a wave of COVID-19 patients.

The 2 Medical unit was not a designated ward for coronavirus patients, but nurses were trained in infection protocols for virus patients and some with suspected or confirmed cases ended up receiving treatment there.

The staffer who died, who was the first known widely to have symptoms, worked on another floor of the hospital, but she had frequent contact with the unit staff as part of her job, according to interviews with four employees, the whistleblower report and a written complaint to the president of the nurses’ union. The employees spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying they feared retaliation.

The 50-year-old woman was a close friend of a unit nurse on the night shift, and the pair had gone with other colleagues to Las Vegas in the middle of March, co-workers said. The trip occurred after local officials, alarmed about coronavirus cases cropping up in the community, had urged residents to stay home when they were sick and warned against nonessential travel.

Shortly after the staffer came back from Nevada, she developed symptoms of the virus and was admitted to a Kaiser Permanente hospital.

Her death March 19 stunned many in the hospital, including on 2 Medical.

“I was on my shift and I got a text message and I was like, ‘Oh, my God! (The staffer) died,’” a nurse recalled.

The staffer’s husband did not return messages seeking comment, but a nurse who is in contact with her family said the woman was suspected of having COVID-19 and was in an isolation unit when she died.

Her colleagues put up fliers summoning co-workers to a short memorial service at the hospital and her friends encouraged donations to a charity she supported, but there was no official communication to the nursing staff, according to the whistleblower complaint and interviews.

Within a few days of the staffer falling ill, the nurse manager of 2 Medical had a fever and went on sick leave. She later told her nurses in an email that she had tested positive, according to interviews and the complaints to the whistleblower and the union.

In the same period, a night shift nurse who had cared for a patient suspected of having COVID-19 started experiencing body aches and chills and later a fever. She called in sick and went to see her primary care doctor, who tested her for the virus, according to a union representative she consulted. In late March, the results came back positive, the representative said.

A manager told her that the suspected patient had tested negative, the union representative said. “She was told, ‘You contracted it in the community … you didn’t get it from the patient.”

Her father, with whom she lived, also got the virus and is now in an intensive care unit, the union representative said.

By then, nurses on 2 Medical had grown worried. There was no way to stay 6 feet from each other at the nurse’s station. At meals, the staff — sans masks — sat close to one another around a small table. The work was often communal as well.

“If we need help putting a Foley catheter, how are we supposed to do social distancing if the other nurse is holding the patient’s leg?” one nurse said.

The spokesman for the county hospital system said there are “robust cleaning processes” in place and that “our healthcare workers must practice social distancing at work where possible, including in the break rooms, meeting rooms, and other locations. “

On the weekend of March 21, an assistant manager on the unit called in sick, but she opted to return to work on Monday while still feeling poorly, according to interviews and the complaints.

As described in the whistleblower complaint, the assistant manager “made her own determination and communicated to others in management that the unit ‘needed her help’ and subsequently returned to active work … in spite of continued symptoms.”

Over the next week, the assistant manager worked a half-dozen shifts. She continued feeling ill and ultimately tested positive earlier this month, according to whistleblower and the union complaints.

She “was seen throughout this last week, on the unit, meeting with traveler nurses in close face-to-face contact while not wearing a mask,” one nurse wrote to the union president.

The assistant manager could not be reached for comment. The spokesman for the county health systems, Kendall, said in a statement that the hospital “requires everyone, including our healthcare workers, to be screened for fever and influenza-like illness symptoms before entering any of our patient care facilities.”

“We require that everyone wear surgical masks while in the hospital, clinic, or building where patient care or patient services are provided, and we require that all healthcare workers self-monitor for influenza-like illness symptoms and stay home (and notify their manager) if they have any such symptoms,” he wrote.

After the assistant manager was diagnosed, a nurse on the day shift then became ill and tested positive and one of the traveler nurses, brought in from out of state to help with understaffing, also developed COVID-19 symptoms and is out sick, according to the whistleblower complaint and interviews.

Still, there was no communication from hospital administrators. On Monday, the email detailing the problems on 2 Medical was sent to the county.

“The Hospital has not implemented any communication methods to alert those who may have interfaced with individuals who have been confirmed positive,” the email stated.

In his statement, the county spokesman said administrators “understand this is a very stressful time for our staff, particularly those who are on the front line caring for patients.”

“We truly appreciate and care deeply about all of our healthcare workers and remain committed to doing everything possible to ensure they are supported and safe,” he wrote.


(Ryan reported from Los Angeles and Lin from Millbrae, Calif. Los Angeles Times staff writer Anita Chabria contributed to this report.)


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