By Shawn Chitnis

SAN JOSE (CBS SF) — Bay Area nurses and caregivers took to the picket lines Thursday as part of a national day of action by health care workers demanding better investment in hospital staff safety.

Nurses and other caregivers were picketing outside of San Jose’s Good Samaritan Hospital Thursday morning, a scene that was repeated outside several hospitals across the Bay Area. Protesters were pressing hospital officials to do a better job at protecting staff and their patients.

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“It feels awful! It feels like we don’t have the things we need to do the best care possible,” said John Pasha, a former ICU nurse at Good Samaritan. “And that’s our job. We’re here to advocate for our patients and for our community and for our co-workers.”

Before sunrise, there was a handful of caregivers outside UCSF in San Francisco. Registered nurse Maureen Dugan said has been working there for more than 30 years.

“We’re demanding safe staffing so that we can do the job that we’ve been trained to and that we love to do,” said Dugan. “We are here to protect our patients and we have to speak up to say that is at risk.”

Protesting workers said they’re being stretched too thin, with too few nurses and caregivers available to care for the influx of patients suffering from COVID and other ailments.

“We can’t save a life with two nurses, we need a team and we just don’t have that right now,” said Yasmin Bishr, an emergency room nurse at the CPMC Van Ness Campus. “We need enough resources and staff to take care of our patients safely.”

Members of the California Nurses Association were outside the Sutter Health location Thursday afternoon with signs, encouraging drivers to honk for their cause. They want to see increased pay and more retention of nurses at their workplaces.

“I worked twelve and a half hours straight without any lunch,” said Ben Taft, an ICU nurse at the same location. “Burnout is real. I’m tired. It is hard to come to work.”

“They keep saying there’s a shortage of nurses; I don’t think there’s a shortage of nurses,” said Valerie Delgado, a nurse at Kaiser Permanente’s Oakland Medical Center. “I think there’s a shortage of nurses that want to work in the hospital under these conditions that are forced upon us.”

The CDPH issued the updated guidance Saturday, arguing that the state’s rapidly increasing number of COVID cases tied to the highly infectious omicron variant have already led to “critical staffing shortages.”

The CDPH added that COVID-positive or exposed workers should only interact with COVID-positive patients, if possible. They are also required to wear an N95 mask in an effort to avoid spreading the virus.

Delgado argued pairing COVID-positive nurses with only COVID-positive patients is “very unrealistic,” noting that COVID unit nurses are often placed in multiple units or floated to non-COVID units during a shift.

“When the hospital is short, we have to fill in on the other units that have been short-staffed,” she said.

The exposure and isolation guidelines are set to remain in effect through at least Feb. 1, according to the CDPH.

During the national day of action, nurses and other caregivers were denouncing that new guidance as creating working conditions they deem unsafe, claiming hospitals are prioritizing profits over patient care by cutting corners on safe staffing.

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Nurses said that was standard hospital policy way before COVID. With the pandemic still in full swing, they say hospitals are pushing desperately needed nurses away from the job. They say shifts are unsafely staffed, with nurses assigned to too many patients to care for at once, increasing the risk for medical errors, complications and even death.

“It is unacceptable, it is not okay for you to make these changes based on this emergency need of staffing,” Bashr told KPIX 5 on Thursday. “I wouldn’t want to be a patient cared for by a nurse who is sick or who has COVID-19.”

“We don’t do this for free, we have to take our health into consideration, we do this for our patients, but we have to be compensated to earn a living too,” Taft told KPIX 5.

The state’s department of health is currently allowing asymptomatic health care workers who are COVID positive to continue working without isolating. Nurses say they don’t like that either.

In a statement, Kaiser Permanente — one of the health care organizations that served as the backdrop for Thursday’s protests — said it is “extremely grateful” for its nursing and caregiver staff and noted that staffing is currently a challenge across the broader health care industry.

Kaiser also argued it hired some 2,000 nurses in Northern California by the end of last year, has added 300 nurses to its residency program and has brought in “experienced temporary staff” to shore up its depleted group of nursing and care workers.

“We are using all options available to maintain hospital and ambulatory care staffing so we can meet the needs of our patients,” Kaiser said in its statement. “The situation remains dynamic, and we are prepared to respond to the ever-changing demands this pandemic may require.”

Good Samaritan Hospital in San Jose released a statement in response to the picketing nurses that read in part:

“While we support the right of our nurses to participate in labor union activities, we want to ensure the community that safety is of paramount importance to Good Samaritan Hospital, its patients and its employees. No one cares more for our colleagues than we do, especially in the face of this evolving pandemic amid a national nursing shortage.”

KPIX 5 asked the California Department of Public Health about the concerns voiced by healthcare workers.

“The department is providing temporary flexibility to help hospitals and emergency services providers respond to an unprecedented surge and staffing shortages. Hospitals have to exhaust all other options before resorting to this temporary tool,“ CDPH said in a statement.

Sutter Health and other medical groups in the Bay Area are members of the California Hospital Association. When asked about the day of action, the organization said the CDPH guidance is not necessarily one that its members agree with or follow at its institutions.

“This guidance is a last resort option, and it is unlikely that many hospitals will exercise it. Hospitals understand the safety concerns that unions, workers, and patients have about this guidance,” CHA said in a statement.

But workers say they and other employees have been asked to complete shifts if they test positive as long as they aren’t showing symptoms. Nurses also say testing is not an easy resource as other supplies and medications are in low supply during the pandemic. As negotiations continue with the CHA and Sutter Health over the current contract, they say hazard pay and higher wages will be needed to increase their ranks, where one nurse is currently doing the work of four people.

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“I have definitely questioned my passion, I’ve definitely questioned if I need to quit, I’ve definitely thought about quitting everyday,” Bashr said.

Shawn Chitnis