Bay Area health care workers say they're unequipped to handle surge of coronavirus patients

As Bay Area hospitals brace for a surge of coronavirus patients, health care workers on the frontlines of the pandemic are raising concerns. Many say they are underprepared for the anticipated crush of patients.

With dwindling supplies and already overburdened staff at many hospitals, workers are worried they won’t have adequate resources to protect themselves or their patients from the coronavirus.

“I’m deeply, deeply concerned about how unprepared we are as a hospital system for this crisis,” said John Pearson, an emergency room nurse at Highland Hospital in Oakland.

He said employees at the hospital are being told to save and reuse their non-reusable masks as the hospital scrambles to get more.

An employee at John George Psychiatric Hospital in San Leandro shared a notice to workers asking them to conserve masks and sanitary wipes.

“We have limited supply so if you get one, please keep it on you for your entire shift and reuse them,” the notice reads.

“The huge danger here is that we are spreading anything that’s in the air or anything that’s a droplet from patient to patient,” Pearson said.

Highland Hospital has begun screening patients as they walk into the emergency room and set up a tent to isolate anyone showing symptoms of coronavirus.

The facility is one of the largest trauma centers in the Bay Area and is a “safety-net” hospital, meaning it’s a last resort for anyone without health insurance, like undocumented, homeless or other people who can’t visit doctors or other inpatient health clinics.

Public health officials said Highland could be seeing spiraling numbers of patients if things get out of control.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday estimated that 56% of California’s population – or more than 25 million people – could be infected with coronavirus in the next two months.

“If we start getting 20-to-30 people a day that are high suspect, this system isn’t going to be able to handle it,” said Joe Simpson, another emergency room nurse at Highland.

He said he collected 800 N95 masks from a non-profit and personally delivered them to the hospital this week.

Housekeeping crews are also raising concerns about the alleged lack of preparedness. Many say they’re understaffed and recently stopped receiving Clorox sanitary wipes to clean patient rooms. They’ve been using other cleaning solution in the meantime.

“I’m worried every day,” said Derek Boutte, a housekeeper at Highland Hospital. “I want to make sure I don’t put my family at risk. I want to make sure none of my coworkers are at risk.

Officials at Highland sent KTVU a statement saying they are deeply concerned about a surge in coronavirus patients. The hospital has canceled elective surgeries to make room and said it has increased training on the use of “personal protective equipment” like facemasks.

In Santa Clara County, which has the highest number of coronavirus cases in the Bay Area, a nurse at Kaiser Permanente hospital said she was placed on administrative leave after sharing Cal/OSHA’s safety guidelines with her colleagues.

Kristine Fry said the Kaiser hospital in Santa Clara is following less restrictive guidelines set by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We go to work every day to make our patients better, not to make them sicker,” Fry told KTVU. “And not having the appropriate equipment to protect ourselves means we can’t protect our patients.”

Nurses at Kaiser Permanente on Thursday protested outside St. Joseph’s Medical center in San Francisco. They accused management of keeping masks locked up and not properly sequestering possible coronavirus patients.

“As the virus is now spreading quickly through our community, equipment and supply needs have increased dramatically,” Kaiser officials wrote in a statement. “We are prudently managing our resources to ensure this equipment is available for our health care workforce for the duration of this pandemic.”

Evan Sernoffsky is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email Evan at evan.sernoffsky@foxtv.com and follow him on Twitter @EvanSernoffsky