The exterior of Highland Hospital facing 14th Avenue. Photo: Pete Rosos

The president of the Alameda Health System, the independent government agency that operates the county’s public hospitals, apparently turned away a county fact-finding team from Alameda Hospital last week, exacerbating tensions between the two entities at a time when the number of COVID-19 patients being screened and treated is rising.

The fact-finding team, which included two county representatives, had come to Alameda Hospital to investigate complaints made by nurses, doctors and other staff about shortages of personal protective equipment. The team also intended to investigate reports of disputes between workers and administrators over workplace safety policies at Highland Hospital in Oakland. But Noha Aboelata, the president of  Alameda Health System, told the team to leave.

“It’s been pretty upsetting,” said County Supervisor Wilma Chan. “We haven’t been able to send our team on-site even though we said we’d be very cooperative with AHS.”

Chan and other supervisors had insisted on the visit during an April 7 meeting with trustees of the board of Alameda Health System. The supervisors were concerned about complaints by health care workers that they didn’t have enough personal protective equipment to keep them safe while treating people with COVID-19.  Some of the AHS trustees objected to allowing in a fact-finding team, but they were overruled.

“We could have just assumed everything that’s being said is true and just blasted their board or administration, but that’s not the approach we took,” Chan told Berkeleyside last week. “The approach we took is we’re going to look, we’re going to see what’s going on there, and if they need help, if they need extra PPE, or if they have operational issues that are preventing workers from getting PPE that’s available on site, we want to help them.”

The team, including Alameda County Health Care Services Agency Medical Director Dr. Kathleen Clanon and Jet Chapman, the head of human resources for the same agency, was supposed to walk through Alameda Hospital along with two members of the AHS board of trustees. The team was also supposed to visit with doctors and nurses and stop at AHS’s incident command center.

Chan said the goal wasn’t to “point fingers” at anyone but instead to gather information about the ongoing dispute between hospital staff and administrators.

Instead, the two county officials, Clanon and Chapman, were asked to leave Alameda Hospital by AHS administrators shortly after they arrived.

Thursday afternoon, shortly after the fact-finding visit was canceled by AHS, the Alameda Board of Supervisors formally rebuked AHS President Noha Aboelata for allegedly interrupting the county’s investigation of workplace issues at the system’s three hospitals in Alameda, Oakland, and San Leandro.

Board of Supervisors President Richard Valle wrote in a letter to Aboelata that he and the county’s other top officials were disappointed and dismayed at the outcome.

“We are dedicated to working collaboratively with the AHS Board and Administration, but we are not finding the same openness on the part of the Board of Trustees,” wrote Valle. “This development is in violation of the County’s contractual rights, and denial of access cannot continue.”

While AHS is an independent government authority charged with operating the county’s public hospitals, it is under the oversight of the County Board of Supervisors. The county created AHS, and the Board of Supervisors also holds the power to appoint each AHS trustee, including Aboelata. The county also helps fund the hospital system.

Aboelata and other members of the AHS board of trustees did not respond to an interview request about the dispute with the county. AHS spokesman Terry Lightfoot also said he couldn’t answer specific questions.

In addition to making workplace complaints about PPE shortages, the union SEIU 1021, which represents nurses and other hospital system employees, has accused AHS administrators of retaliating against Saber Alaoui, a Highland nurse who wore a plastic trash bag over his body as protective equipment. A photo of Alaoui was shared over social media by other nursing staff two weeks before AHS administrator fired him.

John Pearson, an emergency room nurse and SEIU 1021 chapter president at Highland, said he believes the firing was clearly in retaliation over nurses sharing information that was critical of how AHS administrators have run the hospital.

“Upper management is so completely out of touch with what’s happening in their own facilities,” Pearson said Friday. “They have no idea what’s going on.”

According to AHS spokesman Lightfoot, Alaoui was fired for other reasons unrelated to the photo, but employment laws prevent AHS from stating the reasons. The incident is now subject to an internal AHS investigation, according to an email sent by AHS CEO Delvecchio Finley to staff on April 22.

In the same letter, Finley wrote that he is “troubled by the recent spate of public criticism leveled at [AHS] and our people.”

In the meantime, Highland Hospital and other AHS locations have experienced shortages of protective equipment and supplies, according to internal memos obtained by Berkeleyside.

An April 19 memo sent to all AHS staff noted that AHS hospitals have run out of wall-mounted hand sanitizer and an April 9 email sent by AHS administrators urged hospital employees to post a donation request to their personal social media for PPE like face masks and goggles.

Correction: the county’s fact-finding team was turned away from Alameda Hospital, not Highland Hospital. Both are part of the Alameda Health System.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and...