Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Lovelace Health System began requiring enhanced masking of employees who deal with patients this week, but a top administrator said the move wasn’t spurred by the recent outbreak of the COVID-19 virus at the company’s New Mexico Heart Institute in Albuquerque.
A week after the state Department of Health confirmed more than 100 patients were possibly exposed and four Institute employees – including a cardiologist – had tested positive for the coronavirus, there’s been no word on the extent of the virus spread at the Institute.
The physician, who hasn’t been identified, was being treated in the ICU a week ago, but his condition wasn’t divulged Friday. There were also no details released on the three employees who subsequently tested positive for the virus after the physician’s case was reported to the state on July 5.
Dr. John Cruickshank, CEO for Lovelace Medical Group, said Friday he didn’t know whether any patients have tested positive and wasn’t certain that information could even be divulged.
A Lovelace spokeswoman told the Journal in an email, “due to patient and employee confidentiality, we cannot speak to any additional COVID-19 cases.”
How the physician became infected is unknown, Cruickshank added.
“We have no idea where that virus came from,” he said.
What is certain is that the virus that has taken 565 New Mexican lives as of Friday is continuing to spread here and around the country, Cruickshank told the Journal. He said that’s why Lovelace’s parent company, Ardent Health Services, based in Nashville, Tennessee, mandated the new type of mask for employees at its 30 hospitals nationwide.
“We anticipate that we will have future exposures to our staff,” he said. “It’s not a question of if it will happen, it’s when it will happen.”
He said the new protection of a KN-95 mask will offer a “significant upgrade from a loop surgical mask or homemade cloth mask.” The mask guards against aerosol contamination but offers less protection than the N95 respirator-grade mask.
Protecting employees is vital, he said, considering the numbers of medical staff that are being quarantined as COVID-19 rages in other states.
“Every one of those staff members that goes down decreases our ability to care for the community,” Cruickshank said. “We’re in this for the long haul and that cardiology exposure that we had, that’s not going to be the last exposure.”
He said eye protection for medical workers is currently under consideration, adding, “We’re at the beginning of this challenge, and that’s what people tend to forget. We’re at least a year way from a vaccine.”
At Lovelace and other medical facilities in New Mexico, patients are screened for symptoms of the virus prior to their appointments, and their temperatures are taken upon arrival to see providers.
But that doesn’t catch asymptomatic patients who may transmit the virus.
Statewide, the health care industry in New Mexico has accounted for about 17 percent of the COVID-19 cases investigated by so-called “rapid response” teams from the state Environment Department and DOH. Positive tests have been reported at hospitals in Las Cruces, Santa Fe, Taos, at University of New Mexico Hospital and Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque and Presbyterian Rust Medical Center in Rio Rancho, state records show.
Rapid response teams typically help test other employees who worked with the infected person, advise on disinfection and safety plans and sometimes temporarily shut down a business to contain the virus. The state usually does contact tracing to find and notify others who may have been exposed.
Cruickshank said the Heart Institute didn’t shut down its operations after the positive tests were reported.
“We contained that quickly,” he said, adding that Lovelace handled its own contact tracing instead of waiting for the state to come in.
“DOH will tell you that Lovelace did a tremendous job and that is the reason why they didn’t shut us down, or see the need to do anything like that. We did what we needed to do.”
DOH spokesman David Morgan told the Journal on Friday, “The department is satisfied Lovelace has taken adequate steps to eliminate any further transmission.”
Lovelace has been among those health care institutions in the state, and nationwide, that has lamented the public failing to get timely care for non-COVID conditions, such as strokes and heart attacks, out of a fear of contracting the virus.
Cruickshank said the public shouldn’t be concerned about contracting the virus at the Heart Institute.
“You’re taking a risk when you go pump gas in your car and you’re not wearing gloves. You go into that Lowe’s, or that Costco, you’re walking by people that are positive for COVID and they’ve got their nose hanging out of their masks. There’s probably more chance of you getting infected in those environments than there is when going to an environment like ours with medical professionals that are doing everything they can to keep that from happening.”
Melanie Mozes, spokeswoman for Presbyterian Healthcare Services, told the Journal there were no plans “at this time” to introduce KN-95 masks into its workforce, which uses other surgical and procedural masks “as appropriate for their position.”
Early in the pandemic “we did notify a small group of patients who were potentially exposed,” Mozes said. But to date, she added, there are no “known reports” of patients contracting COVID-19 through contact with its workforce.