Don’t let hospitals delay seismic safety protections again

By Dahlia Tayag

Dahlia Tayag, is a San Diego registered nurse and board member of the California Nurses Association.

The ground starts shaking; the building begins to sway. An elevator carrying a patient headed for emergency surgery suddenly freezes between floors. Oxygen to a Covid-19 patient’s ventilator stops working. Lights in intensive care go dark just as a physician is putting in an emergency stent.

Anesthesia in an operating room stops flowing to a patient receiving brain surgery. Feeding tubes for coma patients stop operating. An unprotected gas line sparks a fire in the basement. Laboring mothers are unable to be admitted to hospitals. A family carrying a loved one crushed under a falling dresser to a nearby hospital finds they can’t help them.

It sounds like a frightening blockbuster disaster film, but it will be a real-life nightmare if our hospitals aren’t brought up to seismic safety standards.

Californians count on their hospitals to be there in an emergency. That includes the hours and days after an earthquake when they are needed the most.

Scientists have been warning about the next “big one” in California. The day when tremors turn into a massive earthquake is surely coming, one our hospitals can and must prepare for.

Fifty years ago, an earthquake in northern Los Angeles County killed 64 people, 49 of them at the Veterans Administration hospital in Sylmar. In the decades since hospitals have made some seismic safety upgrades, but there is more to earthquake preparedness then ensuring nothing comes tumbling down.

California is earthquake country. Every Californian lives with the threat of the next Sylmar as happened again in the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

The devastation of Northridge, in which three Los Angeles hospitals were closed indefinitely because of structural damage and loss of water and power and dozens of others sustained such severe battering they had to evacuate patients, finally led politicians to pass a law to better prepare for earthquakes.

A crucial piece of those reforms was to require hospitals to continue providing life-saving care after an earthquake.

But, the California Hospital Association (CHA), with assistance from their political allies in Sacramento, is trying to remove these laws while the state is battling a devastating drought, a global pandemic, and the beginning of what will likely be another disastrous wildfire season.

Seismic safety laws have been on the books for decades. Hospitals have had a long time to prepare construction plans and financing, and almost 10 years before they must complete coming into compliance with those rules.

Both Sylmar and Northridge were considered fairly moderate quakes by scientists largely because California has had far more serious seismic events. We will have them again. Freeways and other roads may be unnavigable. Communication, power, gas and water arteries could be damaged, crippling basic services for hours, days, or weeks.

As a California registered nurse for many years, I’ve seen how woefully unprepared hospitals were for the current pandemic. Lessons from previous outbreaks like MERS, Ebola and H1N1 should have prepared our healthcare system to better handle Covid-19. But they didn’t. As a result, 63,317 Californians have died so far, including 475 frontline healthcare workers.

CHA wants to restrict the 2030 safety laws to “only those buildings that provide emergency services” as if other hospital services don’t matter to the patients who need hospital care, and to delay all other compliance until at least 2037.

Their excuse? The cost of Covid-19. However, in 2020, Kaiser Permanente reported $6.35 billion in income. HCA Healthcare reported it made $3.8 billion in 2020 profits.

Additionally, California hospitals overall received more than $5 billion combined from the federal Medicare program in direct aid, plus over $8 billion in pandemic related loans.

The California Nurses Association, the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, the California Professional Firefighters, the California Labor Federation, and others representing health care workers, emergency responders, patients, safety engineers, and retirees, all oppose any action through the budget, or legislation that rolls back, extends the timeline on, or weakens these standards. We’re encouraging others to contact their state legislators and calling on state legislators and Governor Newsom to do the same.

Every day we delay compliance further, we are risking people’s lives. The real goal of the corporate hospitals is to get out from under the entire 2030 seismic safety standard and leave all of us unprotected.

The Covid-19 pandemic laid bare the deadly tragedies that occur when hospitals are not prepared for disasters and emergencies. Let’s not let hospitals make the same deadly mistake twice.

National Nurses United, with more than 175,000 members nationwide, is the largest union and professional association of registered nurses in U.S. history.