‘We get inundated’: Bay Area health care workers demand more staffing, gear in national coronavirus rally

Robin Watkins had spent a 12-hour overnight shift caring for coronavirus patients at Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center on Wednesday, but the nurse didn’t go straight home after work.

Instead, he rallied in the morning mist to demand more staffing and protective gear.

At least 40 nurses decked in red California Nurses Association shirts and masks marched in front of the hospital, hoisting signs that said “Save Lives” and chanting, “Mighty, mighty nurses, fighting for our patients.” The same cries echoed at two dozen Bay Area hospitals, part of a national movement of unionized workers protesting at 200 U.S. locations Wednesday.

“They tell us, ‘You’re heroes,’ and then they don’t give us what we need to stay as safe as we can to take care of these patients,” said Katy Roemer, maternity ward nurse and the union’s chief nursing representative for 1,400 nurses at Oakland Medical Center. “There’s tremendous stress associated with the risks of going into work. That is compounded by not having what we need.”

Health workers across the country demanded more personal protective equipment and staffing to keep themselves and their patients safe, the same concerns they’ve shared the past five months. They demanded that the government pass the Heroes Act for economic relief, and that President Trump invoke the Defense Production Act to force companies to make more N95 masks. And they called for the dismantling of systemic racism that led to people of color suffering most during the pandemic.

In the Bay Area, nurses picketed two dozen hospitals, half run by Kaiser Permanente. At Kaiser’s Oakland Medical Center, Roemer protested that staff use the same N95 mask for an entire shift, following federal and state guidance loosened because of global supply shortages, or reusing ones that have been chemically decontaminated.

A Kaiser Permanente spokesperson said that during worldwide shortages of personal protective equipment, the system made sure to have the appropriate gear in line with science, public health and workplace safety guidelines. The hospital system encourages staff to raise concerns, he said.

“We are in this fight together, and we remain committed to protecting our valued care teams, including our nurses who are at the front line of care,” the spokesperson said. “We understand this is a stressful time balancing the extraordinary responsibilities of caring for patients in this pandemic with the equally important responsibilities at home.”

At Oakland Medical Center, nurses in the emergency and intensive care departments said they have enough gear, but that other units need more and training in how to use it. They also wanted more staff to handle the heavy load of coronavirus patients, similar to workers at other Bay Area hospitals.

During the pandemic, California hospitals can apply for a waiver to change nurse-to-patient ratios required by law through the state public health department. Only one Bay Area facility — Petaluma Valley Hospital — received a waiver so far.

The pandemic has dealt a financial blow to some hospitals to the tune of millions or even billions as they lost income from canceled surgeries and spent money on coronavirus care. Hospitals have furloughed or cut pay for workers to balance the books — making it harder to meet demands for even more staffing.

But even when ratios remain the same, such as at Oakland Medical Center, workers said they feel overwhelmed. Emergency room nurse Stacey Eddie donned a red mask that read “Save Lives” after her 12-hour overnight shift to rally Wednesday because she said the hospital needed safer ratios.

In the emergency room, patient numbers are still lower than before shelter-in-place, but it takes more time to screen, test and gear up for coronavirus patients, she said. The current ratio was 4 patients to 1 nurse, but she wanted to see it lowered to 3 to 1 for COVID-19 patients.

“I know one day, my mom is going to be sick, my fiance is going to be sick — I would like for them to get their quality care they deserve because that nurse isn’t overextended,” Eddie said.

Kaiser said the hospital recognized the importance of breaks for nurses and staff. “In addition to staffing that meets state ratios for the level of care provided, we have augmented staffing levels with the hiring of additional temporary nurses to assist if needed,” Kaiser’s spokesperson said.

Watkins said he doesn’t always have time to take a break during a 12-hour shift.

“We get inundated,” he said. “It’s exhausting.”

For nearly half a year, Watkins has worked to keep coronavirus patients alive, getting to know them and their families for months in some cases before they pass away. He said there have been days where he returned to work to find three or four patients had died in the past 24 hours.

“Subconsciously, it takes a toll,” he said.

Even when he took vacation, he felt guilty for leaving his colleagues with more work, he added. The father of five hasn’t gotten sick, but set up a quarantine area in his garage in case he does to protect his family.

“I always pray, no matter how bad things get, I try to stay as hopeful as I can,” he said.

Mallory Moench is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: mallory.moench@sfchronicle.com Twitter:@mallorymoenc