Dozens of hospital employees in New Jersey have contracted COVID-19 and workers say they're growing more concerned as positive cases continue to surge in the state and across the country.
EMTs wearing protective gear were seen diverting patients and loading them up into ambulances at Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen after 30 to 40 employees at the hospital tested positive for the virus. At Hackensack Meridian Health Ocean Medical Center, more than 100 workers were infected, according to a memo from November.
A union official for workers at Palisades Medical Center told News 4 that most of the employees who tested positive for COVID-19 are nurses from two different units, including the Progressive Care Unit -- a unit where there are patients who require significant attention.
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While the hospital system says that diverting patients is normal, even before the pandemic, and that the number of staff who are currently "out of work" due to their infection has not impacted patient care, frontline healthcare workers are alarmed.
"If our members are home sick who is taking care of the patients?" said Health Professionals and Allied Employees President Debbie White, a registered nurse. "We’ve already had two members die at Palisades Medical Center during the first surge."
White added that there have also been spikes at Jersey Shore. She said that the COVID outbreaks at Palisades and Ocean Medical Centers are alarming not just because of the health consequences, but also because the hospital management has thus far declined to give precise numbers on how many staff members have been infected.
Hackensack Meridien health would not disclose specific numbers, but did confirm the number is less than 1.5 percent of total clinical workforce, adding that the number has decreased from just days ago as more of them return to work. The hospital has also taken action by suspending visitations and constant testing for any patient that is hospitalized for more than two days.
"We continue to have adequate staffing and follow all rigorous safety protocols established by the CDC and the New Jersey Department of Health. This includes increased daily COVID-19 testing of team members in any of our units with a greater probability or incidence of confirmed cases. Greater surveillance of team members better enables us to identify those who are asymptomatic but test positive and ensure they rest at home," the hospital system said in a statement, adding that the outbreaks have "not impacted patient care."
A bill in the state assembly would require hospitals publicize data about COVID outbreaks. Gov. Phil Murphy said that he would support the bill in concept if it emphasizes transparency.
New Jersey has seen a stark increase in hospitalizations, which are at their highest levels since mid-May. The state reported its highest daily COVID death toll Tuesday (90) since May 4, a sobering statistic that likely will continue to climb following the holidays.
"These nurses and other health care professionals out of commission are going to greatly impact the ability to care for the peak of the surge which has yet to hit us," White said.