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DPH Investigates COVID-19 Outbreak Among Staff At Backus Hospital In Norwich

Harriet Jones
Connecticut Public Radio
Backus Hospital in Norwich, a member of Hartford HealthCare.

The state Department of Public Health is investigating an outbreak of COVID-19 cases among staff at Backus Hospital in Norwich, where employees say as many as 11 people have so far tested positive. 

They believe that health workers and other staff members were exposed to an infected patient who was not suspected of having the disease when originally admitted, and that a lack of sufficient personal protective equipment led to a greater spread of transmission.

Dr. Ajay Kumar, chief clinical officer of Hartford HealthCare, said in a statement Thursday that the hospital “has identified an individual lapse in inappropriate use of PPE.” He said the hospital has performed contact tracing and is testing anyone who may have been exposed.

Members of the Backus Federation of Nurses, AFT Connecticut Local 5149 union suspect that the hospital’s outbreak could be connected to cases at Three Rivers Healthcare nursing home, also in Norwich.

There, 21 residents and five staff members have become infected, and three residents have died. Some people were sent to hospitals for care.

Shanon Pereira, a Backus Hospital registered nurse and union member, said hospital leadership notified her and colleagues last week that a patient in their unit had tested positive for the coronavirus and that testing was recommended.

“And through the information they provided, I knew that I personally never had contact with this patient,” she said, “so I really wasn’t concerned, because I had had actual close contact with a patient that was positive in the past and had done OK.”

But when Pereira arrived at work last Thursday, she discovered that several colleagues had become infected. That same day, she went home early after developing a fever, and on Sunday her test results came back: positive for COVID-19.

Everyone living in or regularly visiting her household has been tested and some are still awaiting results. Her almost 2-year-old son is running a fever. Her mother, who helps with child care, has tested positive for COVID-19. And as of Thursday morning, her father was showing symptoms.

“I’ve wanted to become a nurse for as long as I can remember, just to help people,” Pereira said. “And I wouldn’t give it up for the world, but the entire pandemic has been absolutely awful on my mental health, just worried sick that I was going to bring it home to my family. And I did.”

Pereira said she and colleagues have been extremely diligent about using masks and practicing hygiene, both at work and in their personal lives.

“I’ve been known in the past to approach a physician that I see who, they’ve forgotten to wash their hands. Or they’re sitting at the nurses’ station and the mask is not covering their nose or mouth,” she said. “I’m incredibly diligent. My scrubs don’t enter the house. I really don’t even like to go to the grocery store. I’ve been ordering my groceries to get delivered at home.”

But hospital workers are still being told to reuse surgical masks by storing them in brown paper bags. Pereira has become an advocate on the PPE front.

“Moving forward, we want a stockpile of PPE so that we can use PPE as per manufacturer recommendation, where a single-use mask is a single-use mask and it gets thrown in the garbage when it’s done,” she said.

Hospitals across the state and country have reported staff cases throughout the pandemic. Hartford HealthCare has treated, in total, more than 2,400 COVID-19 patients. The health system tested thousands of workers this summer for coronavirus antibodies, which indicate that a person had been previously infected with the virus.

Results showed that about 6.4% of health care workers had antibodies, a rate similar to estimations for the general population. 

At a state news conference Thursday afternoon, Josh Geballe, chief operating officer, said the two outbreaks at health facilities in Norwich seem to be contained and won’t require the state to issue a community alert for increased precaution as it did recently in Danbury.

“That does not appear to be community spread,” he said. “It seems to be contained to this particular nursing home and perhaps some bleed-over into the local hospital as well. But it doesn’t appear any evidence at this point that there’s community spread.”

A DPH investigation is ongoing.

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