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EPHC circles back to discuss future Verizon cell tower in Portola

By Lauren Westmoreland

Eastern Plumas Health Care (EPHC) held a meeting of the board of directors Thursday, Feb. 24, with the bulk of the meeting devoted to the cell tower.

After approving the consent agenda and hearing a brief report from the hospital Auxiliary, the board went on to discuss the latest developments and information concerning the planned installation of a 5G Verizon cell tower near the Portola campus.

“I want the board to discuss whether we should send another letter to the city to at least come up with a policy for cell towers. We don’t need to be overrun with cell towers in the area,” McGrath said.

McGrath noted that no new construction has been done on the tower in Portola, just brush removal. “We may want to ask the powers-that-be to create tougher ordinance for any further cell towers coming in until we know that they won’t be harmful to more people,” she said. McGrath noted that it was of utmost importance to safeguard the health of community members.

Swanson noted that the issue was under heavy contention. “If they put the cell tower there, it precludes a formal helipad at the planned site to my understanding,” Director Paul Swanson, M.D. said.

“All of the towers and bandwidth are full next to Beckwourth Peak,” Director Teresa Whitfield noted.

McGrath asked if it was possible to put some restrictions on Verizon, and Swanson noted that he is opposed to putting a tower there “on the basis of blocking any potential expansion of helicopter services at EPHC in the future.”

McGrath then said that she felt that the hospital needed to safeguard its future, and that the city should take a stand to protect them. “If the city and county don’t go forward with getting requirements for these cell towers, it’s going to be a can of worms moving forward,” McGrath said with a sigh.

“It would limit potentially where we could put a helipad in the event of future expansion,” Swanson and McGrath agreed.

“I would suggest sending a letter to the city recommending against the cell tower as it would affect our future expansion,” Swanson suggested.

Whitfield noted that there should be communication available to the city, and that there needed to be more information before she could consider it detrimental. Board members went on to further discuss sending a letter to the city, taking a vote on sending a letter of strong protest to the city council. Three voted yes and three no.

“I want to look at more research on this topic,” Director Linda Satchwell said. “We should take time to really understand this issue.”

Resident Josh Hart presented an email correspondence with Care Flight/REMSA Executive Director Ron Walter who did in fact confirm that 5G will likely impact operations moving patients from Portola by helicopter in adverse conditions and at night due to altimeter and night vision interference caused by 5G.

“If there is interference, Care Flight will only be able to use the hospital’s designated landing zone during the daytime. Night operations will require transporting the patient to another location outside the 5G interference zone. Care Flight is a VFR (visual flight rules) program and utilizes NVG (night vision goggles) for night operations. The FAA requires a functional radar altimeter for night operations. This would prohibit Care Flight from landing at the hospital-landing zone after dark,” Walter stated.

Walter went on to state that they had three recommendations:

First, Care Flight recommends that EPHC should consider building a helipad that meets FAA and State regulation and have it registered as an official Helipad or Helistop.

“Second, support the fact that there will be an impact to patient care, especially during night operations.

Third, we strongly recommend that Verizon and all telecommunications companies be required to publish a list of 5G tower locations that is accessible to HEMS operators,” Walter concluded.

With the vote still split with three in favor and three against, the board moved on to the next item of business. However, later in the meeting, members of the public addressed the issue.

Josh Hart, local resident and spokesperson for local group Plumas Wired spoke briefly about the topic of the planned cell tower.

“You have my comments in writing that were submitted,” Hart said. “The inaccuracies that have been mentioned during this meeting are that the tower is about calls. This tower is actually about video streaming capacity.”

Hart went on to note that there is nothing precluding Verizon from implicating 5G at the new tower planned to go up in Portola near the hospital campus. “4G is directly adjacent to the frequency used by helicopter pilots,” Hart said. “It may make helicopter landings at EPHC impossible during the night. The cell tower may also create an epidemic of radiation related health issues. This is about our local cooperative as well, Plumas Sierra Telecommunications (PST) is running fiber to the tower instead of to homes.”

Hart went on to state that the groups’ strong recommendation to the board is to stop the tower.

Hart then offered to connect Keith Mackey, President of Mackey International Aviation Safety Consultants.

Mackey was in attendance at the meeting and spoke briefly to the board. Mackey stated his concerns, mainly revolving around the height of the proposed tower and the proximity it would have to EPHC Care Flight operations.

“Very little discussion has gone on about emergency helicopter operations in these discussions,” Mackey said. “5G towers can affect the altimeters and preclude proper operations.”

There was also the concern that EPHC has not licensed their helipad yet, and the window to do so before the planned tower is built is narrowing.

Mackey went on, “I recommend that you listen carefully to these arguments and keep 5G tall towers away from your helipad so that you can use it.  If you let this go on, you may not have as easy a time solving it as if you handled it now,” Mackey closed.

Swanson said that he thought Mackey’s comments should be considered.

All board members agreed that there are time considerations to take into account for the topic of the cell tower.

“I suspect that ultimately, I’m not sure I’ll feel good to put a lot of time into this issue when all we can really do is write a letter,” Swanson said.

McGrath said “We should not bury our heads in the sand on the topic of the helicopters,” and all agreed to potentially ask Mackey back to a future meeting for a consultative review of the situation.

 Infection control

Michelle Romero of Infection Control reported, “We are not seeing as many cases (Covid) as we were last month, but we are still having drive-through clinics.”

Romero noted that last month there had been a small outbreak in the Portola Skilled Nursing Facility (SNF), with two patients who were isolated and ultimately healed.

SNF Director of Nursing report

Skilled Nursing Facilities (SNF) Director of Nursing Lorraine Noble reported that the census is currently 48 in the Portola and Loyalton SNFs, with 24 in each facility.

“The good news is that we just finished interviewing potential nursing assistant students. Positions will be offered to ten students. I also have six traveling nurses, three LVNs, and three CNAs on board.”

Noble reported that weekly covid testing with residents continues, with all currently testing negative at both facilities.

Human resources director report

Human Resources Director Lori Tange reported briefly on staffing and sick leave.

“First, in mid-January, HR met with hiring managers around the onboarding process, and were able to clarify roles and responsibilities. Feedback from staff stated that it was found to be very helpful for the hiring managers in the process,” Tange said.

Tange also noted the changes related to AB84 around covid sick leave. “We have adjusted back to January for those who had to use sick time for covid-related absence,” Tange said.

Chief financial officer report

CFO Katherine Pairish reported on financials from the month of January.

“I have taken a different approach to this report, looking at the seven months ending January 31 of this year compared to the seven months ending January 31, 2021,” Pairish said.

She reported that total year-to-date revenues were over last year by $971,600, which is a 22 percent increase. Total expenses were over last year by $2,536,225, or 15 percent.

“When revenues increase, we expect expenses to follow suit,” Pairish mentioned. “The fact that revenues increased by a larger percentage means we are doing well.”

The budget process for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2023 will be discussed at the next EPHC board of directors meeting.

Director of clinics report

Director of clinics Paul Bruning reported that since the last meeting, one of the major items is that the only dentist at EPHC, Dr. Hoffman, DDS will be leaving from April through June. This has left EPHC scrambling to look for dentists to serve the local population during that time frame.

CEO report

Chief Executive Officer Doug McCoy then reported that January operating performance control continued to outperform budgeted targets and year over year outcomes.

After highlighting some financial outlooks reported by Pairish, McCoy noted that EPHC continues to message physicians and health care networks about the variety of high-level services offered by EPHC.

“January covid rates due to Omicron have begun to decrease both within the county and statewide,” McCoy said. “We’re very hopeful in this downturn, and with only two residents that were impacted but recovered, we are very happy about that. We remain on CMS required PPE requirements for employees and will be continuing that until determined otherwise.”

McCoy took a broader spectrum look at the impact of covid, with 40 percent of California hospitals reporting themselves as being in crisis staffing.

“It will take 500,000 nurses to meet these staffing challenges, and there has been a seven and a half percent increase in consumer prices,” McCoy said before going on to thank the directors for taking into consideration staffing during the highest consumer index since 1982. “We want to offset staffing challenges,” McCoy said. “We are very hopeful about the incoming CNA students.”

“There will also be a new community newsletter in April as our Spring newsletter. This will be a great way for EPHC to share updates about all of the services we continue to offer,” McCoy said.

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