Should NJ hospitals be required to tell public about staff COVID-19 outbreaks?
Taken from NorthJersey.com
By Lindy Washburn and Dustin Racioppi
December 7, 2020
The scope of staff sickness, absence and deaths at New Jersey hospitals due to COVID-19 remains unknown nine months into the pandemic, despite concerns that a reduced workforce may hamper the hospitals’ ability to absorb a rising wave of sick patients.
Hospitals in New Jersey are not required to publicly report the number of COVID-19 diagnoses — or deaths — among their staff. That contrasts with nursing homes and schools, for whom the state posts detailed reports daily on a data dashboard available to the public.
But in recent weeks, several staff outbreaks have come to light:
- More than 100 health care workers were reported sick with COVID-19 at Ocean Medical Center in Brick.
- Some 30 to 40 others were sidelined at Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen.
- Another outbreak was reported to have sickened staff of an intensive care unit at Jersey Shore Medical Center.
- A hospital worker in Bergen County was blamed by a Westwood nursing home operator as the source of a cluster of cases among several of the home’s residents.
- And the state Department of Health consulted with Pascack Valley Medical Center in Westwood on “potential transmission within their facility,” a spokeswoman said, after reports that an outbreak at Dellridge Health & Rehabilitation in Paramus may have originated there.
Outbreaks among hospital staff have caused patients to be transferred, ambulances to be diverted from emergency rooms and some elective surgeries to be postponed. Few employee back-ups are available to plug the gaps, so staff shortages can limit the ability of hospitals to admit new patients.
Executives at Hackensack Meridian Health, where some hospital outbreaks have been reported, said the workers became infected in the community and not inside the hospital.
“There’s so much community spread, we’re all vulnerable,” said Dr. Daniel Varga, chief physician executive for the 17-hospital system. “It’s occurring at every hospital we have.”
A record number of new COVID cases reported statewide each day — such as an unprecedented 5,673 on Friday — and the state’s high rate of COVID positive tests, at 10.42% on Friday, are the cause, rather than in-hospital transmission, he suggested. “Our people are living in that milieu,” he said. “We’re comfortable with our PPE [personal protective equipment] and our infection prevention criteria.”
The health system declined to provide specific numbers of affected staff at facilities where the outbreaks occurred, noting that “less than 1.5 percent” of its clinical staff of 26,000 systemwide — fewer than 390 people — were out sick last week. Information about their staffs is confidential, hospital executives have said.
“We are strictly adhering to all CDC and New Jersey state protocols to ensure the safety of our patients and our team members,” a statement from the health system said Friday, referring to the federal Centers for Disease Control.
Dodging workers’ comp claims?
New Jersey’s largest health care workers union says more transparency is needed.
By blaming “community spread” for staff illnesses, hospitals can dodge responsibility for workers’ compensation claims for workplace exposure, a union leader said.
Essential front-line workers who get sick with COVID-19 are presumed to have contracted the virus at work — and it’s up to the employer to prove that they did not, under a law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in September.
The health care workers are eligible for benefits, including workers’ compensation, under the law promoted by lawmakers to “help our heroes receive the lifesaving health care they have provided for thousands of New Jerseyans,” as state Senate President Steve Sweeney put it earlier this year.
“It boggles my mind” that data on COVID cases among health care worker is not available nine months into the pandemic, said Debbie White, president of the 14,000-member Health Professional and Allied Employees union. “We have everything under the sun on the [state COVID] dashboard except this. … You would think that in this environment especially, it is absolutely crucial that we track this data.
“The public should know because they may need to go to those facilities,” White said. “If I need to go the hospital, wouldn’t I want to know if there’s an outbreak?”
But neither the state Health Department nor local health officers, who are responsible for investigating COVID clusters within their jurisdictions, provide details about specific hospital outbreaks.
In Hackensack, health officer Susan McVeigh said Friday that “positive cases within [Hackensack University Medical Center] have increased in recent weeks, coinciding with the rise in cases throughout the state and region.” She noted only that the hospital “consistently met its requirements” to report cases among staff and patients.