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Pinellas nurses say HCA hospitals lack staff, protective gear

The company disputes the allegations made about its hospitals in St. Petersburg and Largo.

Nurses for HCA Healthcare are raising concerns about unsafe working conditions at three Pinellas County hospitals, alleging the company has not provided adequate staffing or protective equipment through the coronavirus pandemic.

About a dozen met outside St. Petersburg General Hospital Wednesday evening to discuss problems there, as well as at Largo Medical Center and Northside Hospital. They set up a clothesline of about 40 “assignment despite objection” forms recently filed by nurses at the three facilities who felt supervisors gave unsafe directives.

The hospital later responded, saying the allegations were false.

Related: Local caregivers demand proper protective equipment and hazard pay

Nurses say they aren’t regularly tested for COVID-19 and are told to come to work when they report having symptoms. They say they are forced to reuse protective equipment, like gowns and masks, and are ignored or intimidated when they voice concerns.

National Nurses United, the union that represents nurses, filed similar complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration alleging the hospitals are not notifying nurses when a coworker contracts COVID-19.

The agency responded to the complaints, records provided by the union show, but opted not to investigate them. Instead, the hospitals are instructed to review conditions themselves and report back findings by June 30, according to letters sent to the hospitals.

Northside and Largo Medical Center have already responded, according to the records. Northside’s response said employees are screened for COVID symptoms each day and know the protocols for reporting injury or illness contracted at work. Largo Medical Center said the same in its response, and that it has a staff member dedicated to distributing protective equipment as needed.

In statement responding to Wednesday’s protest, HCA said its hospitals follow federal and state guidelines for protective equipment and “aggressively” participate in contact tracing to track the virus.

“We are extremely disappointed in the (union’s) ongoing efforts to discredit the hard work and excellent patient care being provided in our hospitals during this pandemic,” the statement said, adding that the company is “actively engaged” in getting feedback from employees through surveys, “huddles” and other methods.

The statement also cited a July 6 decision to stop elective surgeries in order to expand bed capacity and conserve resources for caregivers.

Barbara Murray, 61, spoke to reporters about high patient counts nurses are seeing at St. Petersburg General. Before the pandemic, she would care for five patients at a time, but managers had started giving her more, she said.

After watching patients and her own work suffer, Murray, a nurse of 40 years, brought concerns to supervisors. She couldn’t get patients medication quickly enough, she told them, and patients needed more time than she could give. She had already raised the alarm on equipment shortages months prior and not much had been done, she said.

“The next day, I got a phone call and they said I was suspended while they investigated what happened,” Murray said. “After two days, I went in for a meeting and was told I was being terminated for insubordination.”

Patient counts are high at Largo Medical Center, too, said nurse Cassandra Hoffman, 33. She had six patients on her last shift — too many to do her job well, she said.

“We want the best for our patients and the staffing levels aren’t helping,” Hoffman said. “HCA is a multi-billion dollar company. They can afford safe staffing.”

Martin Peebles, a 20-year nurse at Largo Medical Center, agreed staffing is inadequate there. So is protective equipment, he said. He wonders why, contending that the country’s shortage on supplies isn’t as severe as a few months ago.

“We have very inconsistent supplies,” he said. “We have to reuse masks and gowns, and we have to fight for it.”

Peebles, 56, recently learned a coworker had tested positive for COVID-19, but it wasn’t the hospital that informed him, he said. He had to get a test on his own because one wasn’t available at work, he said.

The union has requested regular staff meetings where nurses can discuss their worries with management, but none have happened, Peebles said. “Nurses are ignored, harassed and intimidated for speaking out.”

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