Chicago hospital fined $13,500 over masking policy after nurses file complaint after 3 die

Community First in Portage Park is contesting citations from OSHA over respirator guidelines.

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Nurses place roses on a shrine that symbolizes the nurses who passed from COVID-19 after a press conference in front of the Community First Medical Center in the Portage Park neighborhood, Wednesday morning.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A Northwest Side community hospital faces a possible penalty of almost $13,500 after it was cited late last year for not following federal guidelines related to respirator use for workers treating COVID-19 patients.

The action taken against Community First Medical Center in Portage Park followed an inspection that some nurses say was prompted by their complaints to federal regulators after the deaths of three of their colleagues who fell ill after being infected with the virus in 2020.

Community was cited for two “serious” violations in December, one for allegedly not testing the fit of respirator masks for employees and another for failure to provide a written “respiratory protection program” for workers, according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration records.

The OSHA inspection was categorized as a fatality/catastrophe inquiry. The alleged violations were “grouped because they involve similar or related hazards that may increase the potential for injury or illness,” according to an OSHA document.

Hospital officials are contesting the citations and declined to discuss the matter other than to issue a short statement saying that the medical center “has felt the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic firsthand” and added that “our colleagues have become ill and some have made the ultimate sacrifice for their profession.”

However, some nurses, who are negotiating their first union contract with Community First as members of National Nurses United, said Wednesday that they are still concerned about hospital policies that they say don’t address staffing and overcrowding during peak periods during the pandemic. Community First also serves Belmont Cragin, which has been one of the top areas in the city for the number of virus cases.

According to union nurses, the OSHA inspection last year that resulted in the citations was spurred from complaints they made after three of their fellow nurses died of COVID-19. The nurses blame poor policy around personal protective equipment, or PPE, that resulted in some workers being forced to buy their own respirators. Hospital officials dispute the assertion.

“There are still a lot of safety concerns,” said Kathy Haff, a nurse who has worked at the hospital for 29 years and is on the bargaining committee negotiating a contract. “We have better PPE than we did when this started but it’s still not what it is supposed to be. Staffing is horrendous.”

Haff, other nurses and local church leaders held a moment of silence to mark the three deaths at a news conference across the street from the hospital Wednesday. They said they want to draw attention to the issues at Community First, which was known as Our Lady of the Resurrection Medical Center until Presence Health sold it to a private group in 2014.

Presence had considered closing the just-under 300-bed hospital before selling it to Community First Healthcare of Illinois, which promised to spend millions of dollars to improve the operations.

The Rev. C.J. Hawking, executive director of the workers’ rights group Arise Chicago, said Wednesday that she requested a meeting be held between the hospital’s leadership and local church leaders about workplace safety conditions at the Community First but no meeting has taken place so far.

“This is outrageous how the hospital is treating its workers,” Hawking said.

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A nurse holds a rose in front of the Community First Medical Center during a moment of silence for three nurses who died from COVID-19.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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