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Virginia Mason and CHI Franciscan considering merger
 07.25.20

Virginia Mason in Seattle and CHI Franciscan in Tacoma are considering a merger.

In Yakima, Virginia Mason Memorial is affiliated with the Virginia Mason Health System. Founded in 1950, the former Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital affiliated with Virginia Mason Health System on Jan. 1, 2016.

The nonprofit Virginia Mason Health System and CHI Franciscan — along with CommonSpirit Health, parent company of CHI Franciscan — recently announced they have signed a memorandum of understanding to explore combining through a joint operating company. CHI Franciscan is a Catholic nonprofit health system.

“CHI Franciscan and Virginia Mason have partnered closely in recent years and through this collaboration it has become clear there is much more we can do together,” said Ketul J. Patel, CEO of CHI Franciscan and president of the Pacific Northwest Division at CommonSpirit Health, in the July 16 announcement.

Combing the organizations would allow them to shape health care nationally and continue their focus on the patient experience, said Dr. Gary S. Kaplan, chair and CEO of Virginia Mason. If combined, CHI Franciscan and Virginia Mason would operate 12 hospitals and more than 250 sites, and employ more than 21,000 people, including nearly 5,000 employed and affiliated providers.

For now, all patients will continue to have access to their same site of care and will use their current insurance plans, hospital officials said.

The new health care system would be led by Patel and Kaplan, and each entity would receive an equal number of board seats, the Tacoma News-Tribune reported. Patel and Kaplan told the newspaper it was too soon to determine whether there would be any layoffs with a merger, but emphasized the potential for growth.

Concerns about access

The potential consolidation concerns reproductive health, LGBTQ and end-of-life care advocates. A joint statement from 12 organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Association of Washington, End of Life Washington and NARAL Pro-Choice Washington and GSBA: Washington’s LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce, earlier this week said the merger could deny patients access to some reproductive and end-of-life care options.

Catholic health systems like CHI Franciscan are bound by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (ERDs), which forbid or severely restrict many reproductive and end-of-life health care services, the statement said.

A joint operating company involving the health care systems would impact some services at Virginia Mason Memorial, an emailed response from Virginia Mason and CHI Franciscan confirmed.

“As we work toward the definitive agreement, care would remain the same at Virginia Mason. Once we have reached a definitive agreement, some services related to reproductive health and physician-assisted death would no longer be provided at Virginia Mason,” the email said. “This would only impact a small percentage of care Virginia Mason provides.

“Virginia Mason would ensure it does not cause CHI Franciscan to come out of compliance with the Ethical and Religious Directives (ERDs). Additional details are being determined as we work toward a final agreement and would be communicated should we reach a final agreement.”

The restrictions required by ERDs “disproportionately harm women, terminally ill patients, communities of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, low-income populations and rural communities,” Kim Clark, senior attorney for Legal Voice, said in the statement.

“This is especially true in Yakima County, where there is a diverse and underserved population, and high rates of STIs and unintended pregnancies,” according to the statement. “After this merger, the county’s religiously affiliated hospital bed number will go from zero to over 70% — reducing access to reproductive health care.”

Timeline

Officials for both of the health care systems are “actively working with community groups to address their questions,” an email said. The organizations hope to finalize their evaluation and planning process by the end of 2020.

If approved, the new organization would make it easier for patients to get the personalized care they need, no matter which facility they enter, supporters said. And by combining the health care organizations, “We expect there would be new opportunities for our team members,” according to the email.

“We believe our employees and team members will be excited about how this combined organization would build the health system of the future,” the health care organizations said.

Virginia Mason Memorial is the only hospital in the city of Yakima after Astria Regional hospital closed in January. Astria Health filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2019 and operates hospitals in Toppenish and Sunnyside.

This story has been updated.


Coronavirus
Yakima Valley Libraries are closed until Phase 2. But many online summer activities are available.
 07.25.20

The Yakima Valley public libraries won’t be able to reopen physical locations until Yakima County reaches Phase 2 of the state’s “Safe Start” plan.

But that doesn’t mean bibliophiles and families have to lose their connection to the literature or learning opportunities that libraries provide.

The library system kicked off its summer reading program and an art and writing contest for youths in mid-June, and book clubs and other activities are available for adults.

Yakima County will need to report 63 or fewer new cases over a two-week period before being cleared by the state for Phase 2, according to the Yakima Health District.

Krystal Corbray, the programming and marketing librarian, said the libraries’ physical locations will be able to start offering curbside pickup once the county reaches that point.

Patrons will make their selections through the system’s online catalog and then report to the library of their choice for the contact-less pickup, but won’t be able to enter the buildings, Corbray said.

The libraries’ meeting rooms and computers also won’t be available to the public during Phase 2.

In the meantime, all holds and item due dates have been extended through July 30, with another automatic extension likely through Aug. 31 due to continued restrictions over COVID-19.

Patrons won’t be charged fees or fines for items they’ve held onto since the libraries closed their doors due to the pandemic, Corbray said.

Library staff routinely check and empty the outside book drop-off bins outside at library locations, so readers who would like to drop off their finished books can do so, Corbray said.

Programs available

The libraries’ summer reading program started June 15 and will run through Aug. 15. It encourages students to keep track of the number of books they complete to earn raffle prizes.

Art and writing contests ask students to submit any original piece or fictional story inspired by the theme of “Imagine your story” by an Aug. 7 deadline. Written works can be submitted in English or Spanish.

Additional entry criteria are available at the library system’s website. Three winners from each age group will receive gift certificates ranging from $10 to $50, due to sponsorship from the Yakima Valley Libraries Foundation.

Reading programs and contests are open to kindergarten through Grade 12 students who live in Yakima County, with the exception of Grandview, which has its own city library. The Grandview Library also has a virtual summer reading program.

For other patrons, Yakima Valley Libraries has a number of virtual offerings, including online book discussions — this month focuses on E.M. Forster’s “Howard’s End” — as well as weekly online trivia nights on Thursday evenings and an upcoming online science show.

Corbray said library patrons have been supportive and appreciative of efforts to keep them connected during the pandemic.

“It’s been pretty overwhelming to adjust, to be perfectly honest,” she said. “But patrons for the most part have been very responsive. In this time when you don’t really know what might happen tomorrow, having that sense of connection to the library and that sense of community is important.”


Farmworker death draws state scrutiny
 07.24.20

After a Mexican orchard worker died earlier this month from COVID-19 complications, the state Department of Labor & Industries is demanding changes in the farm labor camps of a major Eastern Washington fruit grower that employed the man in Okanogan County.

The “order and notice of restraint” results from several site visits in an investigation of a Gebbers Farms labor camp where the worker, who died July 8, was lodged. The notice requires Gebbers to either remove bunk beds in this and other company labor camps, or comply with a state rule that requires camp workers to be in groups that live, travel and labor together.

“We take this very seriously. The choice is pretty simple. Stop using bunk beds or follow all the requirements,” said Tim Church, a Labor & Industries spokesman who added that the unusual action reflects the risks of the disease spreading to other workers.

Failure to comply with the order carries the risk of criminal penalties.

In a statement, the family-own company’s chief executive officer, Cass Gebbers, disputed the L&I Department’s description of their COVID-19 protocols, which he said were reviewed by a consultant who also serves as a program officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“The accusations … are simply false,” Gebbers said in the statement that declared workers already are properly separated into distinct groups that live and work together, although the company cannot dictate what happens during off-duty hours.

The state investigation comes at a time of rapid spread of COVID-19 in Okanogan, a largely rural county with a population of fewer than 44,000. As of data released Friday, 551 people in Okanogan County have tested positive, a more than 10-fold increase from the beginning of June.

Gebbers is an Okanogan County powerhouse, one of the biggest apple growers in the Pacific Northwest and a global provider of cherries. To grow and harvest this orchard fruit, the company employs some 4,500 people, about half of whom are guest workers who labor seasonally through a temporary agricultural visa program and another half of whom are local.

Since the novel coronavirus pandemic began earlier this year, 120 workers have tested positive for COVID-19. Another 156 employees showed symptoms and either are awaiting test results under quarantine, or are going through a full quarantine because they did not want to be tested, according to the statement released by Gebbers.

These employees reside in farm labor camps that have been a major concern for state health officials trying to reduce the spread of the virus among agricultural laborers who are part of the essential workforce.

To reduce risks, state officials, working with industry and labor groups, developed COVID-19 rules for camps that were published this spring.

In Okanogan, Gebbers’ efforts to combat COVID-19 have garnered praise from county health officials.

“It is clear that Gebbers Farms has gone to great lengths and expenses to keep its workers safe during the current COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote Dr. John McCarthy, health officer for Okanogan County Health in a July 18 letter to Cass Gebbers that commended the company’s “stringent COVID-19 protocols.”

Testing seeks extent of outbreak

The state investigation of Gebbers began after the United Farm Workers (UFW) received reports from about a half dozen company workers about the spread of COVID-19 at a labor camp near Brewster.

Those workers were frustrated they could not get testing, said Erik Nicholson, a UFW national vice president based in Eastern Washington.

“They were terrified that they might get sick, and feared they would be sent back to Mexico if they caused problems,” said Nicholson, who made a referral about their complaints — and the worker death — to the state.

In recent weeks, the COVID-19 outbreak has spurred expanded community testing of more than 400 people, including seasonal farm workers whom Gebbers encouraged to participate and offered transportation to the site where swab samples were taken.

More than 45% of the tests — offered for free — came back positive, which is more than seven times higher than the state’s positive rate, according to Scott Graham, chief executive of Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster.

“It is unfortunate that the positive rate is so high,” Scott said. “This is just the beginning of our testing. If we are able to sustain it, then we will have a bigger pool to evaluate and see what the numbers look like.”

Nicholson said he thinks the Gebbers testing should have happened sooner, even if it meant the company had to pick up the costs. “We still don’t know the full extent of the outbreak,” Nicholson said.

Death of long-time worker

So far, three people in Okanogan County have died from COVID-19 complications, including one Mexican national, according to county health officials. And state officials confirmed that there was a worker who died at the Gebbers camp from COVID-19 complications.

Gebbers, in his statement, said he did not know the cause of the worker’s death, whom he identified as Juan Carlos Santiago Rincon.

“We were saddened to learn of Mr. Rincon’s passing … and our hearts and blessings go out to his family and friends,” Gebbers wrote.

Rincon was under 40 years of age and had worked for Gebbers for more than a decade, according to Dan Fazio, of Olympia-based WAFLA, which assists Gebbers and Northwest farming operations that hire foreign workers who obtain temporary H-2A visas.

“We are really broken up about it,” he said.


Update
Yakima Health District reports 90 new coronavirus cases, 1 death
 07.24.20

Yakima County’s total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is approaching the 10,000 mark as 90 new cases were reported Friday.

Yakima Health District listed the total number of coronavirus cases at 9,945, an increase of 90 from Thursday’s report.

Health district officials also reported an additional death Friday, bringing the total to 184. Yakima Health District’s tally counts people who tested positive for COVID-19 and died from COVID-19-related complications.

The health district also reported 7,073 people have recovered from the virus, an increase of 117 from Thursday’s report. Health officials consider people who tested positive at least 28 days earlier who have not died nor are hospitalized as having recovered.

As of Friday, 28 people were hospitalized, with five of them on ventilators, according to the health district.

— Donald W. Meyers


State_news
Durkan pleads for calm as federal agents poised near Seattle
 07.24.20

SEATTLE — With federal agents poised to deploy to Seattle against the will of local leaders, Mayor Jenny Durkan on Friday pleaded with protesters to demonstrate peacefully ahead of what she worried could be a violent and tumultuous weekend in the city.

Describing herself as frightened, Durkan said she’s worried that a small group of people is bent on disrupting protests, damaging property and provoking violence, citing vandalism, fires and injuries during nighttime protests two days earlier this week.

Citing threats of crackdowns from President Donald Trump, she said she feared what has happened in Portland — nightly, violent clashes between protesters and camouflaged federal agents — could happen in Seattle.

“I cannot overstate it enough, what is happening is frightening to me,” Durkan said at a Friday morning news conference. “It is frightening that you would use federal agents for political purposes.”

“He is doing that, he is purposefully targeting Democratic cities,” she said of Trump.

Durkan said she spent the morning meeting with the King County executive, the county prosecutor, the Seattle city attorney and the state Attorney General’s Office, and that they will take “every legal step necessary” if federal forces intervene here as they have in Portland.

There are several protests planned for Seattle over the weekend, some of which include groups that have emerged as militant voices in Portland.

Durkan said she felt misled by Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, who she said told her Thursday that the agency had no plans to send federal agents to Seattle and would inform her if that changed. On Thursday evening, the agency said they were sending a Customs and Border Protection team “on standby in the area” to protect federal buildings.

“I don’t want to say I was lied to, but I think there was maybe semantics that weren’t forthcoming,” she said.

She said she’d asked for information but received none on the number of agents in the area and their purpose.

Later Friday, all nine Democratic members of Washington’s congressional delegation wrote to Wolf urging him to immediately withdraw federal agents from Seattle and demanding answers about how many were sent and for what purpose. They were not joined by any of their Republican colleagues.

U.S. Attorney Brian Moran, of the Western District of Washington, said the Nakamura Federal Courthouse in downtown Seattle was broken into and vandalized last weekend.

“I want to be very clear regarding the role of federal agents summoned to Seattle,” Moran said in a prepared statement. “They are here to protect federal properties and the important work that occurs in our courthouses and federal buildings.”

The possible influx of federal agents comes as Durkan continues to field criticism about Seattle police’s own handling of protests over the last several weeks.

Durkan repeatedly cited her tenure as U.S. attorney for Western Washington, saying it was common for federal agents to be sent to cities, but not without notification or over the city’s objections.

“It is really unprecedented for federal agents to be surged to a city without consultation of local law enforcement,” Durkan said.

Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best stressed that neither of them had requested federal help and both disavowed comments from Mike Solan, president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, who has said he would welcome the help of federal agents.

“He doesn’t speak for the Seattle Police Department, Chief Carmen Best does,” Durkan said.

“Mike Solan can ask for whatever he deems necessary,” Best said. “He’s another person out in the community.”

At the same time, Best also repeated her criticism of a new law, passed last month by the City Council, that bans Seattle police use of tear gas, pepper spray and similar weapons. The ban goes into effect Sunday.

“It deeply troubles me,” she said. “But I am duty bound to follow.”

She said it would leave police with fewer “tools” to safely disperse crowds.

“I’ll be taking this pepper spray off of my belt and putting a riot stick on there,” Best said.

Meanwhile, late Friday night the U.S. Attorney’s Office made its own effort to stop the crowd control restrictions from going into effect: Brian Moran, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington filed a motion asking U.S. District Judge James Robart to issue a temporary restraining order.

Rather than asking Robart to stop the ordinance from going into effect, the motion asks him to stop a corresponding directive that it says SPD issued its officers Thursday, requiring that they stop using pepper spray, blast balls and other weapons. That directive starts Saturday at 3 a.m., the motion says — although the council’s ordinance doesn’t take effect until Sunday.

Changing SPD’s policy in this area, even if required by an ordinance, is an act that must be reviewed through the consent decree process, the motion says.

“It is likely that removing nearly all forms of less lethal implements from all police encounters will not ‘increase(s) public safety’ nor provide the means for SPD officers to abide by the de-escalation mandate,” the motion says.

A hearing on the matter was scheduled for Friday night.

Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, chair of the Public Safety Committee, said earlier in the day that the new law doesn’t go into effect until Sunday and rejected “any attempt to place SPD’s deployment decisions for Friday or Saturday at the Council’s feet.”

She also wrote that she was concerned Best was making a pre-emptive decision to “de-police” what could be chaotic scenes downtown over the weekend.

James Sido, a spokesperson for the Downtown Seattle Association, said in an email, “We expect our local and state leaders to establish policies and laws that protect the first amendment while also protecting residents and businesses from targeted and organized vandalism, destruction and looting.”

In Portland, federal law-enforcement agents are charged with protecting the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse, where they have been based during the nightly protests that now target the building. But early Friday, as in some previous nights, agents moved several blocks west of federal property and acted like they had full authority to wield policing powers as they deployed tear gas canisters and shot off other munitions.

In one early Friday incident witnessed by a Seattle Times reporter, a line of federal agents clad in paramilitary gear blocked off the east end of Portland’s southwest Main Street several blocks away from the courthouse.

Protesters gathered a bit further to the west. They had regrouped after an earlier round of tear gas. They were standing in place and at that point did not appear to be throwing things at the officers.

Then, the federal force used big doses of tear gas as a kind of herding tool to push the protesters further from the courthouse.

Through it all, the Portland Police were nowhere in sight, having largely ceded the night’s protest response to the federal government.

“We’ve seen it happen in Portland,” Durkan said. “At this point I have to presume that what is happening in Portland could happen here.”