300 Nurses Said MVHS Couldn’t handle a Pandemic. Now they’re right 

Story by Eamon Handzel 

Several months ago, 300 nurses and 459 community members of MVHS signed a petition stating that MVHS was too short-staffed to safely operate. In the recent Covid surge, they have, unfortunately, been proven right. The conditions the staff face at St. Elizabeth’s and St. Luke’s are not only dangerous for themselves, but also prevent safe care for patients.  


1) Recap 

In the spring of this year, Mohawk Valley Health System began laying off its essential personal (nurses, techs, cleaning staff, etc.), but at the same time took an estimated $14 million in Covid relief funds. The result of this massive layoff was an equally great decrease in patient safety and satisfaction. There simply weren’t enough essential personnel to staff St. E’s and St. Luke’s. The big sigh of relief occurred when Corona virus didn’t spread far in this area. However, the question remained as to what happens if in winter Covid returns in the form of a massive surge.  

To recap what was covered in previous articles on the matter: 

MVHS started laying off essential staff while expanding administration. Nurse’s Union NYSNA and CWA protested and warned people about the danger of understaffed hospitals in a pandemic. 

A St. E’s nurse protesting in June. Photo by Eamon Handzel.

Analysis of the area showed: 

  • MVHS is attempting to be the only game in town for the tri-county area. So, let’s look at supply and demand: 
  • Oneida county’s population is 228,671, Herkimer county has 61,319, and Madison county’s is 70,941. That’s about 360,000 people that require adequate care. That’s the demand, now let’s see the supply. 
  • MVHS acute beds: 571; MVHS long term beds: 202; Little falls bed count: 25; Rome Memorial hospital bed count: 171; Hamilton Community Memorial hospital: 25 
  • That puts the max bed count of the tri-county area at 994. Meaning MVHS and the three other small hospitals have beds for 0.0028 of the population. To clarify, there is a bed for only 1 out of every 362 people in this area. 
  • Even if these hospitals were to double their capacity overnight, they still wouldn’t have enough resources to combat a major outbreak like that which we’ve seen in NYC.  

Patients were suffering because there simply weren’t enough nurses to help everyone. There were substantial increases in patient-falls and infections, and a decrease in proper sanitation. Assignment Despite Objection forms (ADO’s) are what nurses file when they’ve had too much work put on them. This year, the ADO count at St. Luke’s increased dramatically due to insufficient staff.  

All summer long, nurses urgently tried to warn people about how they don’t have the manpower to handle a Covid surge. The nurse’s fear just manifested into reality this month when Oneida county saw a massive uptick in Covid cases. 


2) Struggle 

As of November 25th, there are 1,387 active Covid cases in Oneida county, 109 in Madison county, and 619 in Herkimer County. Oneida County has had 145 Covid deaths since March.  

So, how has Utica’s medical response been holding up?   

Anonymous sources from E’s and Luke’s have stated that they’re commonly seeing ratios of 1 nurse to as many as 9 patients, many of those patients being Complete-Care patients that are unable to function independently. 1-9 far exceeds the safe ratio limit.  This is preventing nurses from properly following NYS guidelines and opens them up to law suits. Nurse’s licenses are being placed in jeopardy. The following is a list of some of the other issues that nurses have reported: 

  • Some floors have no Techs (Techs are essential as they are responsible for basic patient care, which allows nurses to handle medical tasks).   
  • Gowns, towels, linens, and basic hygiene necessities run out daily.  
  • Rooms aren’t getting cleaned everyday creating another hygiene crisis. 
  • Lab is understaffed, so blood drawing has been slowed dramatically. 
  • Many social workers and discharge planners are quitting because they’re overwhelmed.  
  • Many departments don’t have time for lunch. They’re working 12hr shifts without food.  
  • Most of the staff have to reuse PPE, thus reducing the effectiveness of the equipment itself. 

Nurses are contracting Covid. As of a week ago, 40 nurses across both hospitals have contracted Covid. The issue is that MVHS isn’t testing everyone that is admitted. With untested admissions, nurses come into contact with the virus. Despite numerous exposures, the exposed nurses can’t get free tests unless symptomatic, otherwise they have to pay for the test.   

“Every patient admitted to the hospital should be tested, and they’re not” —St. E’s nurse

Untested patients may be spreading the virus to staff, asymptomatic staff can’t get free tests, and asymptomatic staff may be spreading Covid to new patients and even family members. 


3) MVHS Response 

Prior to the second surge, MVHS closed the entire Medical Surgery floor. This was done simply to save money, but it drained an already deprived hospital of roughly 30 beds, beds that could’ve been used to treat Covid patients.  

“They’re [MVHS] duplicating management, assistant management, and cutting the people who are actually taking care of the patients. You have multiple assistants and multiple managers doing the same job. It’s doubling up on your cost. And instead of cutting down to barebones management positions, they’re cutting down the staff that’s taking care of the patients.” —- Tom Brosnan. Union Rep at St. Luke’s 

MVHS has endeavored to hire more staff in food service, home care, and even Maintenance. But there is no effort on their part to hire registered nurses.  

Gina Kerr is a veteran nurse who left St E’s after 36 years. She says she left due to the harsh working conditions that are a consequence of MVHS’s mismanagement. She had this to say about what needs to be done: “Darlene Stromstad [MVHS CEO] and her Board of Directors never really supported the staff. Anyone can sit in an office and say they ‘feel’ for the nurses. Actions speak louder than words. I think the administration needs to start listening to the staff. Stop furloughing staff. Set the contract. Start hiring nurses immediately!! The staff need relief. They are tired and overworked. Patient care is suffering. The patients and nurses deserve better. The focus of MVHS needs to be on the staff and patients, not the new hospital. Provide better working conditions. Rehire ancillary staff to support the nurses and improve patient care. It sickens me to see what they have done.” 


4) VAT  

Several years ago, specially trained teams of nurses called VAT (Vascular Access Team) were created to reduce infections that occur when patients require intravenous lines. VAT’s success was undeniable with a %40 reduction in infection rates. MVHS recently tried dissolving this team (in the same week that they added two new executive positions), though decided not to only after massive outcry from the nurses. So, it would appear that the staff can affect some degree of positive change. But can enough change be made before flu admissions increase?  


5) Flu season is just beginning 

As bad as things are due to Covid, they could be made far worse if the Flu season is as deadly as it was last year. The nurses are saying that the present situation is untenable. So, how bad will things be once Flu season is in full swing? Unfortunately, that question is about to be answered.  

Lockwood Law

2 COMMENTS

  1. i retired from St. E”s over a year ago because the way they were doing thing there… i worked over 31 years there and it seemed to go down hill ever since they merged with the other 2 hospitals… i feel so bad for my former co- workers…

  2. I have been a pt. and a employee at the St.Luke’s Campus. due to my autoimmune disease my skin is very hard to get a needle through. With each admission I have had to use the VAT (Vascular Access Team). When the petition got to me I signed it immediately. The use of this team is essential for pt.’s like me.

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