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Staff still does ‘not feel safe’

More still needs to be done with contact tracing, testing, PPE at Maui Memorial

Health care workers at Maui Memorial Medical Center said more needs to be done to protect them from possible icoronavirus infection while treating patients. This photo was taken earlier this month. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Maui Memorial Medical Center health care workers say they still do “not feel safe” amid a cluster of coronavirus co-workers and patients at the hospital.

“I worked with the positive staff member last Thursday; I discovered this third hand,” said ICU nurse Aaron Bear in a text message Wednesday.

“The workers seem to, as a whole, not feel safe,” Bear said. “Many text me every day to express their concerns.”

The cluster of cases at Maui Memorial that began in mid-March and was announced April 8 has grown to 56 cases — 36 staff members and 20 patients. At least one patient death has been linked to the cluster, and the Health Department is looking into four other fatalities. More than half of the 110 confirmed Maui County cases are linked to the hospital cluster.

The hospital, which is operated by the Kaiser-affiliated Maui Health System, received a Kaiser national command center team from the Mainland to help deal with the outbreak.

Maui Health officials have not responded to questions about the working conditions, the virus cluster at the hospital and specific changes implemented by the Kaiser Mainland team.

Maui Health has said the group would assess operations; form a command center that would oversee patient safety, workforce health, supply of personal protective equipment, policies, procedures and compliance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and implement a proactive plan to transparently communicate with the Maui community.

ICU nurse Josh Masslon said Wednesday that there has been increased communication, including online town halls, though some are scheduled during his work hours. He is receiving daily emails on his work account, which again is more difficult to access while on duty and caring for patients.

Masslon, who has had a run in with hospital administration for wearing his own N95 mask when entering the hospital earlier this month, said more needs to be done.

He and other workers interviewed called for better tracing of the infection from workers and patients, more testing and personal protective equipment and getting “good recognition for risking our lives.”

“I feel I would be safer if everyone wasn’t pointing their finger at someone trying to scold them in this unorganized mayhem, where the rules and guidelines change hourly and vary from doctor to doctor or departments,” said a respiratory therapist, who works directly with COVID-19 patients.

“It would just be nice to get good recognition for risking our lives instead of being pulled into the office because we didn’t have the right PPE on that was not provided for us upon entering or is so scarce (we are) running around like a headless chicken trying to find a gown or the right mask,” said the therapist, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job.

She said the stress and animosity leave her awake at night “in fear of what wrong thing I did in a code to get in trouble instead of being fully focused on the patient.”

Bear, who has been outspoken about the issues at the hospital, said not all of his co-workers approve.

“I only speak truth and my only concern is for my co-workers and the community of Maui,” he said. “Some of my co-workers are sick of me bringing up the reality of the dire situation at Maui Memorial. I am making new enemies by trying to look out for the community of Maui.

“Truth is frightening sometimes. I understand that. I will keep speaking out if it saves even one life.”

Masslon said he feels safer working in the COVID-19 unit because they are doing things correctly there. The situation is not as safe in other parts of the hospital.

Staffers in the ICU got tested for the virus last week, after a worker tested positive. Masslon said his test was negative.

“They still haven’t mass-tested the hospital, which I think they should do,” he added.

Masslon said he would like local doctors to get involved with the discussion over hospital improvements because the Mainland team is working only with hospital physicians at the moment.

“I feel like this is a community hospital that receives a subsidy from taxpayer dollars, I feel like the community doctors should be involved,” Masslon said.

PPE is an issue, said the respiratory therapist. She knows that the hospital needs more gowns, shoe covers, hair bonnets and goggles. N95 masks are used for five days and refurbished after each use.

“They stress the importance for PPE and say we are getting a new mask once every five days, but I have not seen this to be true,” she said.

Recently, there was a code blue at the hospital and staff was working on the patient without masks or gloves because there was no station for personal protective equipment anywhere to be seen.

“How can I protect myself?” she asked. “Sleepless nights and empty belly, because I am the only working member in my household, no hazard pay and money slowly running out.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@maui news.com.

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