Henry Mayo nurses speak out about increased patient-to-nurse ratios

Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital ICU nurse Channan Wedemyer tapes a "Save Lives - Safer Staffing Now" placard to her car as participants prepare for a drive-by caravan in front of Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital on Friday, 010820. Dan Watson/The Signal

About a dozen vehicles with nurses from Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital caravanned through Valencia Friday morning to protest increased patient-to-nurse staffing ratios due to the COVID-19 surge, which they say puts patients at risk. 

The hospital is among several in California that was granted last month a temporary expedited waiver from the state Department of Public Health to bump up the number of patients nurses in intensive care units can oversee at one time. 

Hospital officials said Friday they are hiring staff and are offering competitive salaries and benefits, as well as incentives to current clinical employees to work extra shifts. In response to the demonstration, officials said the issue is not unique to Henry Mayo.

A car caravan bearing “Save Lives – Safer Staffing Now” placards wait for the traffic light in front of Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital on Friday, 010820. Dan Watson/The Signal

Henry Mayo ICU nurse Channan Wedemeyer said she typically cares for two patients at a time — but she’s now caring for three under the waiver. 

“As ICU nurses we’re taking care of three patients. Two was hard enough as it was, but three is even worse, especially in the COVID unit,” she said. “It’s causing the nurses to be extremely burnt out and stressed out. They’re not just worried for themselves, they’re worried about being so overwhelmed and so fatigued that they’re going to make a mistake and it puts these patients at risk.” 

Staff outside of the ICU unit said they’re also feeling the effects of the overload, such as nurse Nerissa Soriano Black, a mother of two children who works in the cardiac telemetry unit. She went from caring for four patients to six, she said. 

“Before the staffing waiver was implemented, we were able to spend 15 minutes every hour on each patient but now we’re only given 10 minutes,” she said. “Those 10 minutes inclues putting on our personal protective equipment and taking them off so that we don’t contaminate the next patient, it includes reviewing lab results, imaging results (and) calling the physician for any abnormal findings.” 

Labor Rep. Debbi Pacheco hands out placards that read “Save Lives – Safer Staffing Now” as participants prepare for a drive-by caravan in front of Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital on Friday, 010820. Dan Watson/The Signal

For ICU nurse Clarissa Simpson, patient care is her top priority but she fears it is being jeopardized with more patient load. 

“I absolutely love working in Henry Mayo and we want to give the very best care to our patients, but when we’re being stretched between multiple patients and trying to take care of just their basic medical needs, we’re not available to provide them the emotional support that they need. They don’t have their family there with them,” she said. 

Some Henry Mayo nurses said they had warned hospital officials about the winter COVID-19 surge when the hospital laid off a number of staff in the summer of 2020. Offering incentives continuously and bringing in more nurses could bring relief to the hospital, they added. 

Hospital officials expressed gratitude for their health care staff, adding the situation is in compliance with the law and part of the hospital’s efforts to deal with the significant surge in COVID-19 diagnoses the community has seen.

“As is widely reported, every hospital in California is dealing with unprecedented patient volumes,” said hospital spokesman Patrick Moody. “We are deeply grateful to the hundreds of dedicated Henry Mayo employees and medical staff members who are working long, demanding hours, extra shifts and performing heroically day after day after day to take care of every Henry Mayo patient under extremely challenging circumstances. As always Henry Mayo is complying with all state and federal health regulations. The state of California has allowed hospitals to waive staffing ratios as needed during this time.”

Friday’s demonstration in Valencia is among others that have taken place across the state with nurses rallying with their union, the California Nurses Association. 

In response, officials with the California Hospital Association have said the increase in patients per nurses is to cope with the recent coronavirus surge that has left many hospitals at 0% ICU bed capacity and some, including Henry Mayo, to issue a “code triage” due to staffing shortages and a large number of COVID-19 patient admissions. 

“With COVID, the reality is there are not enough staff, not enough nurses in this state at the moment to care for all of the patients who need our care,” said Jan Emerson-Shea,

vice president of external affairs with the Hospital Association. “We still have not seen the impact of Christmas, let alone New Years. We have not yet hit the peak of this. So, the waivers that the state Department of Public Health issues is for 60 days. That’s it. We’re not turning back the clock on ratios forever.” 

Emerson-Shea was critical of the Nurses Association, calling the demonstrations a “publicity stunt.”

“It’s really not a time that people should be standing on the sidelines and protesting,” she said. “We should all be working together: hospitals, doctors, nurses, state officials, public health to address the crisis we are facing in the state.” 

The California Office of Emergency Services recently asked the federal government for 500 medical personnel to aid overloaded hospitals, following an initial request from L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn to secure the USNS Mercy hospital ship, but the ship is currently undergoing scheduled maintenance. 

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