NJ COVID: Gov. Murphy shares COVID numbers on Friday, Dec. 4
Governor Murphy goes of today’s Covid numbers
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:
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.
No staff-to-patient transmission
So far, no cases of staff-to-patient transmission of COVID have been identified, according to Cathleen Bennett, CEO of the state hospital association, which represents 71 acute-care hospitals and about 120 nursing homes.
The hospital association “continues to keep an eye on” staffing levels, she said, and has found conditions better than during the pandemic’s first wave in the spring. Daily absences last week were about a quarter of those reported during the pandemic’s peak back in April.
She questioned the need for publicly reporting outbreaks, noting that hospitals already report “a ton of information to the state.” Other indicators such as the numbers of COVID-positive patients in the hospital, in critical care, and on ventilators, as well as admissions and discharges, show the public how medical centers are coping with the surge, she said.
Murphy has expressed support for the concept of publishing information about COVID outbreaks among hospital staffs.
“I want the health care providers, the hospital systems to be very clear and up front about what’s going on in their hospitals,” he said Friday.
“They continue to say it’s outside transmission,” he said, referring to the notion that cases among staff arise in the community and not within the hospital. “I think people need to see more detail to have confidence in that.”
A measure that would require all health care facilities to report to the state how many of their staff test positive, are hospitalized, or die of COVID-19 — and post that information on the state’s COVID dashboard — is languishing in the Assembly. It passed the Senate unanimously over the summer, within three months of being introduced.
While it is at a standstill in the Legislature, the Murphy administration could order hospitals to report that information, just as it did for nursing homes, White said.
“We hang signs from the windows thanking our front-line heroes, but we must thank these heroes with more than just words,” said one of the bill’s primary sponsors, Assemblywoman Valerie Vaineiri Huttle, an Englewood Democrat.
“Without data to assess the impact on our health care staff, there’ll be no means to really understand the scope [of COVID] and how it’s impacted the front line personnel.”
Lindy Washburn is a senior health care reporter for NorthJersey.com. Dustin Racioppi is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse.To keep up-to-date with their work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.