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How hard has virus struck NM health care workers?

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Some are getting sick, that much is clear.

But exactly how many of New Mexico’s health care workers have contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, remains a mystery.

Multiple hospitals across the state are not disclosing how many of their workers have contracted the virus and if they were exposed while caring for patients. In some cases, even employees are not told how many of their co-workers are sick or in quarantine.

Other hospitals have disclosed that information.

So far, 20 employees at Presbyterian Healthcare Services have tested positive for the virus and may have been exposed at work, Director of Communications Melanie Mozes said. Seventeen of those employees work at Presbyterian’s Central Avenue location in Albuquerque.

Presbyterian Chief Medical Officer James Mitchell said the safety of the staff “is our top priority at Presbyterian.”

Four employees at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe tested positive, all of whom contracted the illness outside of work, a hospital spokesperson wrote. Three workers at Eastern New Mexico Medical Center in Roswell also tested positive, none via a patient.

And while the number at some hospitals is still unknown, there are data that hint to the extent of the problem statewide.

In the first six weeks of the pandemic, through April 21, at least 154 health care practitioners in New Mexico tested positive for the coronavirus, according to data provided by the state Department of Health. That number includes those working at hospitals and long-term care facilities, some of which have seen large outbreaks of the virus.

More than half of the health care workers infected lived in Bernalillo County. Sandoval and San Juan counties, two of the worst-hit by the coronavirus, also had high numbers of infected workers.

DOH Chief Privacy Officer Jesse Tremaine said not all health care workers told DOH where they worked, but that the department could not provide the information even if they did, because it would make it easier to identify a specific patient.

Some hospitals take the same stance. University of New Mexico spokesperson Alexandria Sanchez said UNMH does not release health care information about its workers, but that infections have never caused a staffing issue. Lovelace Medical Center and Memorial Medical Center in Las Cruces also declined to release the number of workers with COVID-19, citing similar reasons.

“At this time, and throughout the pandemic, we have not had any concerns with staff levels,” Sanchez said.

However, multiple UNMH nurses told the Journal a large number of employees had to quarantine after exposure to the virus, especially at the start of the pandemic, leading to occasional shortages in available staff. Many of those quarantined ended up testing positive for the virus, nurses said.

Nurses protested in April about UNMH’s policies regarding personal protective equipment, or PPE, and forcing nurses in quarantine to use their paid leave time. The hospital maintains it has “sufficient” amounts of PPE, although the exact number is unclear.

“The protective equipment wasn’t in place and workers were getting exposed and infected,” said Eleanor Chavez, executive director of the local chapter of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, which represents UNMH employees. “I’m surprised that (the number of infections) is not more.”

Records show, as of April 27, nearly 700 UNMH employees had been sent home to quarantine for up to two weeks. An email sent to hospital staff acknowledges workers had gotten sick, but states it was not from patients.

“To date, the vast majority of our staff COVID-19 infections at UNMH have been due to staff-to-staff transmission, and not related to patient exposures,” said Annika Cleveland, a clinical educator at UNMH’s Medical Intensive Care Unit.

The nurses said they believe many more infections were contracted from patients.

The nurses also said they would like to know how many workers at UNMH have gotten sick, so they could know if they were exposed to the same patients and better prepare for any missing staff members.

“People have a right to know generally how many people are getting sick,” Chavez said.

San Juan Regional Medical Center and Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

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