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Largest U.S. hospital proprietor on a lawsuit accused of placing employees in danger throughout a coronavirus pandemic

Monique Hernandez's nurse at Riverside Community Hospital is seen during a memorial and candlelight vigil for Hollywood Presbyterian Nurse Celia Marcos who found two days after a positive coronavirus test at the Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles on Wednesday May 6th 2020, died, overwhelmed with emotions.

Keith Birmingham | MediaNews Group | Pasadena Star News via Getty Images

A group of health workers and their union sued the country's largest hospital chain, accusing an HCA Healthcare medical center of ruthlessly endangering staff and patients by violating federal coronavirus guidelines on protective equipment.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday, alleges that the management of HCA's Riverside Community Hospital in Southern California failed to provide workers with adequate protective gear, such as masks and robes, and pressured staff to ignore quota compliance precautions. It is said the hospital also failed to alert staff to possible Covid-19 exposures and pressured staff who had symptoms to return to work.

The hospital "failed to take reasonable and necessary precautions to protect its staff, patients, visitors and the community from the harmful effects of COVID-19, thereby facilitating the spread of the virus and exposing the surrounding community to an unnecessarily increased risk of infection "says the suit.

The case filed in the Riverside County Superior Court is the first against a national healthcare company, according to the Service Employees International Union, which started the lawsuit on behalf of its 97,000 members.

The Riverside Community Hospital said it denies the claims and "we will vigorously defend it."

"Nobody takes the health and safety of our employees as seriously as we do. Since day one, our top priority has been to protect them – to keep them safe and to keep them busy – so that they can provide our patients with the best possible care." said a spokesman for the hospital. "Any suggestion otherwise ignores the extensive work, planning, and training we have put in to ensure high quality care is available during this pandemic."

The four people in the lawsuit include three hospital workers who were infected with Covid-19 and one whose mother, who is also a hospital employee, died of Covid-19.

"These people also believe they are unwittingly passing the disease on to family members or others in the community," the lawsuit said. "Every single plaintiff is from an ethnic minority group, which statistically means a higher chance of contracting COVID-19 and a higher chance of serious symptoms, including death."

The lawsuit alleges that the hospital's "policies and practices" "created or contributed significantly" to a violation of public harassment. The suit also says the hospital was negligent.

The hospital caused "significant, life-threatening damage to the health and safety" of workers and the community, according to the lawsuit. It also "resulted in the death of a female worker from COVID-19, depriving her family of future economic and non-economic benefits".

Hospital management reportedly pressured a plaintiff, Ray Valdivia, to work despite symptoms of Covid-19. It is said that Valdivia tested positive for Covid-19 "hours after the end of this shift". Over a month after Valdivia initially tested positive for Covid-19 and still had symptoms, he was ordered to return to work unless he tested positive for the virus again, the suit said. It adds that Valdivia was tested, worked one shift, and then received the second test results, which showed a positive value.

The hospital and the parent company "fell far short of the CDC recommendations," said the lawsuit. Some hospital workers were "verbally abused" by superiors for requesting masks and face shields.

HCA's share price rose more than 1% on Friday afternoon.

As of June 30, HCA operated 186 hospitals and approximately 2,000 other care facilities in 21 states and the United Kingdom, according to the company's second quarter earnings report.

The lawsuit follows a similar lawsuit filed by the New York State Nurses Association in April when hospitals across New York, and New York City in particular, were overwhelmed by Covid-19 patients.

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