Bucks County Commissioners: St. Mary replacement nurses should follow state COVID-19 protocols

UPDATED: Nov. 19, 9:45 a.m.

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Bucks County Commissioners are asking that replacement nurses at St. Mary Medical Center follow coronavirus protocols set up by the state. The replacement nurses were brought in on Tuesday, when unionized nurses began a two-day strike.

PASNAP, the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals, represents 800 nurses at St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne. The union is striking for safe staffing levels and higher wages.

The replacement nurse issue at St. Mary was addressed at the commissioners' meeting on Wednesday.

“Right as we begin the worst part of the pandemic, they are going to bring in people on buses from other hospitals from other states, who can’t possibly know the routine at that hospital, and who could be carrying COVID with them,” Commissioner Diane Marseglia said.

Marseglia said the three-member panel is asking Trinity Health, the hospital's parent company, to follow the COVID-19 rules set down by the Pennsylvania Department of Health, including a 14-day quarantine for anyone brought in from out of state. Trinity Health has 92 hospitals in 22 states.

Trinity responded to a request for comment with an official statement late Wednesday night. The company said the agency nurses brought in to supplement the striking nurses have already been meeting all COVID-related safety requirements, according to CDC guidelines, hospital policies and state emergency orders.

"Our testing procedures for replacement nurses, as well as all our physicians and colleagues, have been vetted and approved by our physician leadership and Infection Prevention Team," Trinity said in their statement. Also, Trinity said the company has been fully transparent, having notified county health officials of their plan.

Unionized nurses are ready to return to work at 7 a.m. Thursday morning. But Trinity Health said it will not allow nurses back into the hospital until Sunday at 7 a.m., an action the union is calling a “lockout.”

Donna Halperin, a cardiac critical care nurse, said buses show up every day with replacement nurses.

“We usually require a two-week quarantine. They’re coming from all over the United States,” she said.

Trinity countered in its statement that it is not a lockout, adding that about 20% of the St. Mary nurses in the bargaining unit chose not to strike.

Halperin said it’s “disturbing” to see Trinity Health spend their money on replacement nurses and not on the nurses who are striking.

“I think we are all -- and I know I am -- outraged by this," Marseglia said. "These are nurses in our community who fought COVID the first time it came around, put their lives on the line."

Trinity blamed the PASNAP strike for the extra spending, saying it was necessary to uphold their mission.

"St. Mary has the right and the obligation to continue to provide care for our patients, who rely on us to be their trusted health care partner," the company said in their statement. "We want to ensure our community has access to seamless care, especially amid the current rise of COVID-19 cases in our community."

The hospital said that the contract with the replacement nurses' agency guarantees five days of work, and just as it took several days to transition care to those replacements, it will take several days again to safely transition patient care back to St. Mary nurses.

The COVID-19 guidelines from the Pennsylvania Health Department go into effect on Friday.

Trinity says after productive dialogue in the most recent negotiations, the company offered PASNAP members "generous wage increases," "fair provisions" and benefits, which they say the union rejected without a vote of its members.

The hospital said the proposed contract language is essentially the same as what the PASNAP nurses at Mercy Fitzgerald ratified last week, and "it's unclear why this contract language would be acceptable to PASNAP from a patient safety standpoint at Mercy Fitzgerald but not at St. Mary."