Nurses and healthcare workers from Mission Hospital in Asheville hold a rally in February calling for better COVID measures. (Photo courtesy of National Nurses United.) Mission Hopsital
Nurses and healthcare workers from Mission Hospital in Asheville hold a rally in February calling for better COVID measures. (Photo courtesy of National Nurses United.)

Nurses had long complained to NC authorities about lax COVID precautions at Mission Hospital. This week, their bravery was vindicated.

An Asheville hospital that failed to ensure its nurses were properly protected against COVID and that waited more than a week to report a COVID death among its staff has been fined nearly $30,000, the North Carolina Department of Labor said this week.

Nurses from Mission Hospital had long raised concerns about safety issues there, they said this week through their union, National Nurses United. They filed complaints last year with the state labor department’s Occupational Safety and Health Division (OSH).

Mission received OSH citations stemming from three separate investigations last year. The probes found that the hospital did not perform frequently enough the required checks to ensure that healthcare workers’ masks fit properly, and did not keep records of the tests that were conducted.

That, the nurses said, left them feeling vulnerable.

“We union nurses have been fighting for a safer workplace throughout the pandemic,” Kerri Wilson, a registered nurse in Mission’s cardiac division, said on Wednesday in an emailed statement from the union.

OSH received another complaint in late November after the COVID death of a hospital employee, the citations show. Hospital officials are required to report each work-related COVID death to OSH within eight hours. The employee died on Nov. 10, and although hospital management learned of the death the next day, according to the citation, OSH was not notified until Nov. 22. (A Mission nurse confirmed to Cardinal & Pine that the employee was a nurse in a COVID ward.)

The hospital is also required to report each work-related COVID hospitalization within 24 hours. They did not do this either, the citation says. OSH learned of both the hospitalization and the death only through the complaint.

A spokesperson for Mission Hospital told the Charlotte Observer on Wednesday that “the safety and well-being of our patients and caregivers is our top priority.” The person said that the hospital “[knew] the importance in fit-testing and only paused the practice at the guidance of North Carolina Department of Labor and OSHA early in the pandemic,” and had taken steps to “reinstate the practice in 2021.”

The hospital was working with state officials “to clarify these recent findings.”

The hospital has two weeks to either request a meeting with OSH, contest the citations, or pay the fines.

J.C. Sadler, ​​the vice president of communications for the North Carolina division of HCA Healthcare, a global healthcare company that operates Mission, declined to answer questions from Cardinal & Pine about what needed to be clarified, how they were responding to the citations or whether Mission planned to pay the fine.

The NNU applauded the citations and the investigation process, saying that dozens of nurses from Mission Hospital spoke to state investigators and expressed their concerns.

“Our workplace is safer because we spoke up, we reported safety violations, and we took the time to show OSH investigators what needed to be corrected,” Wilson said in the Wednesday statement.

The process, she said, also showed the union’s importance in “exposing the shortcomings of management.”

The total penalties across the three investigations come to $29,775. That money will be sent to the Civil Penalty and Forfeiture Fund, Jennifer Haigwood, the communications director for the state labor department, said in an email statement to Cardinal & Pine, and will be distributed to local public school systems.

“The penalties,” she added, “are in no way designed to make up for loss of life.”