Even With Evacuation Order Lifted, Two Major Santa Rosa Hospitals Won’t Reopen for Several More Days

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Ambulances lined up Saturday, Oct. 26, to evacuate roughly 100 patients from Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, as the Kincade Fire spread farther north. (Courtesy of Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital)

Over next several days, specialized cleaning teams at Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital will be scouring the walls, floors and ceilings, as well as washing the linens, sterilizing the cafeteria and “air-scrubbing” the operating rooms.

Although the Kincade Fire that threatened the city didn’t ultimately reach the hospital, the toxic smoke that engulfed the area left microscopic particles on surfaces and in the air, requiring the facility to undergo a massive cleaning operation before it can begin re-admitting patients.

“Literally dozens of people have begun on-site preparations,” said Dr. Bill Isenberg, who oversees patient safety at the hospital. “We bring in outside organizations that help us meet all of the very exacting standards for cleanliness and safety.”

Both Sutter and Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center were forced to shut down operations last weekend, due to a mandatory evacuation order for northern Santa Rosa. Nearly 250 patients from the two hospitals were transferred to other facilities throughout Northern California.

Before the facilities closed the doors, staff did all they could “so that things that are sterile remain sterile, and things that are clean, remain clean,” said Dr. Michael Shulman, Kaiser's physician-in-chief. That included packing up bed sheets, securing the ventilation system and sequestering medications in airtight storage. Some refrigerated and frozen drugs were also shipped to other locations with more stable temperature controls.

Before they can reopen, the two hospitals must pass thorough inspections from several state and federal health agencies, including California's Department of Public Health, Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, and State Board of Pharmacy.

“They pay, of course, a lot of close attention to the pharmacy, the cleanliness and the stock: Do we have all the drugs we need?” Isenberg said, adding that food service is also a big concern. “We have to be sure that all of the kitchens and the food preparatory areas are completely clean.”

A major focus of the cleaning work, he added, is purifying the air; teams with specialized “air scrubbers” clear the air of microscopic contaminants, making it safe for patients and staff to breathe.

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“That's probably no more important anywhere than in the operating rooms,” Isenberg said. “We really don't want to have any particulates inside places where we operate on patients.”

The two facilities will require several days of cleaning, at which point the inspection process can take up to two days. Both hospitals said they hope to open their doors by next week, but neither would commit to a specific date or timeline.

In the meantime, Kaiser has been staffing temporary clinics in Rohnert Park and at its Santa Rosa Mercury Way office, where patients can receive primary care and mental health care, get lab tests and pick up prescriptions.

For Shulman, who is managing those sites while also overseeing his hospital's cleaning operation, this process is familiar.

Shulman started working at Kaiser Santa Rosa just a week before the North Bay fires swept through the area in 2017. That blaze moved so rapidly that nurses had to push intensive care patients on gurneys through the parking lot, as flames burned in the hospital yard behind them.

When the most recent evacuation order came down last weekend, Shulman said, the hospital moved quickly to avoid any chance of that happening again.

“Having an orderly, safe, controlled transfer of patients was far preferable and safer than what we experienced two years ago,” he said.

Evacuation is often exceedingly challenging for hospitals. Simply moving critically ill patients can itself become life-threatening, especially those who are on ventilator machines or are taking continuous medications.

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“Some of the most critically ill patients, we actually waited until we were absolutely, absolutely certain that we needed to entirely evacuate the hospital,” Shulman said.

But once evacuation was imminent, time was the biggest concern, he added. The hospital was able to evacuate before most other Santa Rosa residents began leaving their homes, in an effort to avoid getting stuck in potential traffic jams and to quickly get patients back into stable care elsewhere.

Kaiser drew on a lot of lessons learned two years ago to improve its emergency procedures this time around, he noted. That included making sure hospital staff took breaks to tend to their own needs, particularly because many nurses and doctors had to be evacuated from their own homes.

“Oftentimes we have to remind people to take care of themselves,” he said.

But Shulman, who was also forced to evacuate from his home — both this week and during the fires two years ago — isn't following his own advice. This time around, while his wife stayed with a friend in Berkeley, he holed up in a hotel room in Sonoma so he could continue managing the hospital and prepare for inspections.

“It's sometimes easier to get lost in the work,” he said. “Once the hospital and patients are taken care of and things are back to normal, then I will find a way to tend to myself.”