State health officials and the Murphy administration said Monday they are looking at requiring hospitals to publicly disclose information on COVID-19 outbreaks among their health care workers, as cases and hospitalizations continue to reach months-long or all-time record-highs.
“Would I be in favor of transparency around that? Yes, 100%,” Gov. Phil Murphy said at a Monday afternoon press conference in Trenton.
“We’re actually working on this as we speak,” he added. “That’s something we’re very seriously looking at.”
Hospitals are claiming that outbreaks involving dozens of health care workers have all been traced outside of their facilities. And they’ve refused to share data on what health care workers have gotten COVID-19.
That’s according to the 15,000-member nurses union the Health Professionals and Allied Employees, during a Monday morning press conference.
And it’s according to a NorthJersey.com report, detailing outbreaks traced back to a number of hospitals operated by Hackensack Meridian Health: more than 100 workers at Ocean Medical Center in Brick, between 30 and 40 at Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen, and an outbreak at Jersey Shore Medical Center in Neptune.
Under official state guidelines, an outbreak at a hospital is defined as at least two cases linked to each other.
The state has a COVID-19 dashboard which includes a litany of numbers on the spread of the virus, including outbreaks at schools, long-term care centers, psychiatric hospitals and the state veteran’s homes. But data regarding hospital outbreaks remains elusive.
Hackensack said in a Monday statement that three dozen hospital workers had COVID-19 after contracting it from someone else who had the virus. But they maintained that “there is no evidence of transmission from team members to patients, or vice versa.”
“In these unprecedented times, it is normal to feel concerned about practicing medicine or seeking in-person care for non-COVID-19 conditions, and we want to assure patients and physicians that their health and safety is our top priority,” said Anthony Passannante, president of H&M Palisades Medical Center.
State health officials, like New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli, warned that should the state’s already-stressed health care workers become infected with COVID-19, then the state’s public health infrastructure could become seriously strained.
“We may not have access to the same pool of travel staff, agency staff or military personnel that we had in the first wave because the entire country is surging,” said Debbie White, HPAE’s president.
During the first wave, which lasted from March to May, hospitalizations topped 8,000 but the pandemic was isolated to the Northeast. That allowed the state to tap into volunteers from across the country – an option no longer on the table. As of Monday, there were 3,346 COVID-19 hospitalizations, the highest count since early May.
Bed capacity and availability of tests is not the problem, Murphy pointed out, but rather it’s the finite number of medical staff.
The HPAE union and state lawmakers are both pushing for hospitals to make more of that information public, arguing that the data would be a vital tool for local and state health and officials, and the public at large, to better respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
And with new cases surging and total COVID-19 hospitalizations at months-long high, that level of transparency becomes all the more important, White suggested.
“[T]ere’s no mandate from our state government, no law that would force hospitals to keep track of six hospital workers,” she said. “We are now nine months into this pandemic and we still don’t know the number of sick hospital workers.”
A law that Murphy signed in September would create a legal presumption that essential workers – like those at hospitals – who are infected with COVID-19 caught the virus while on the job. That would make them eligible for worker’s compensation, rather than have to use their own sick time or paid time off.
“Employers are telling their employees that ‘you can’t prove that the virus you have is work-related, you may have gotten it at the mall, you may have gone to the movies, your kids may have it’,” Rich Marcolus, an attorney who chairs the New Jersey Council on Safety and Health, said at the Monday press conference. “That is against the law.”
“Workers are being told they can’t prove it’s work-related, that they should use their health insurance to pay for their medical costs, they should either collect unemployment, use their personal sick time, and use any other available means to collect benefits.”
HMH maintained that the law “does not automatically ensure that hospital employees who have COVID are assumed to have contracted it on the job” and that “every case is fact-specific.” One measure in the state Legislature, Assembly Bill 4129, would require hospitals to report COVID-19 outbreaks. Its upper house version passed in the state Senate on July 30, but the Assembly version has not moved forward.
“We are reporting every kind of statistic around COVID-19, from racial background, geography, various parts of the state,” one of the bill’s sponsors, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-37th District, said at the Monday HPAE press conference. “I haven’t seen one rational reason why this shouldn’t be reported.”
Her district includes Hackensack University Medical Center, Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, and Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, which became ground zero for the state’s first COVID-19 pandemic. She argued that patients and their families deserve to know if the hospital they’re considering has a COVID-19 outbreak.
Cathy Bennett, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Hospital Association – the trade group for the state’s 71 acute-care hospitals – said her group supports measures like A4129, that would ramp up reporting requirements.
“As COVID-19 activity surges once again in New Jersey, one of our top priorities is ensuring that we have enough staff at the bedside caring for patients,” Bennett said. We will continue to support transparent efforts to ensure that the residents of this state feel confident seeking medically necessary care at our facilities.”
A spokesperson for RWJBarnabas Health said that the hospital chain “will ensure we provide the information that will be most helpful to the government, our communities and our staff.”
“We stand with the [NJHA] in support of efforts to provide information on hospital workers impacted by COVID-19,” added Benjamin Goldstein, the public relations director for HMH. “The safety of team members and our patients is our top priority.”o