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Health care workers, already under strain, seeing record COVID infections

Julyssa Colon, a nurse with Optimus Health Care, adjusts her PPE before administering a test for COVID-19 at a mobile test site set up by Optimus Health Care in the parking lot of the Russell Temple Church in Bridgeport, June 30, 2020.
Julyssa Colon, a nurse with Optimus Health Care, adjusts her PPE before administering a test for COVID-19 at a mobile test site set up by Optimus Health Care in the parking lot of the Russell Temple Church in Bridgeport, June 30, 2020.

Twenty-two months into the pandemic, health care workers are dealing with record hospitalizations, unsustainable work schedules and abuse from a public that’s frustrated and exhausted.

On top of all that, they’re also contracting the virus at higher rates than ever before, federal safety standards surrounding COVID-related working conditions in hospitals have been peeled back, and changes in workers’ compensation policies are making it harder for many who cannot work.

“We have had record numbers of staff members that have been out with COVID,” said Yale New Haven Health CEO Marna Borgstrom.

As of Wednesday, 439 staff members were out across the Yale system, down from 700 on a single day last week. Tom Balcezak, chief clinical officer at YNHH, called the trends in worker infections even more frightening than hospital admissions.

Hartford HealthCare reported 1,500 workers out with COVID on Wednesday, down from 1,600 last week. As of Jan. 11, over 500 hospital staff were out at Nuvance Health, a network including Danbury Hospital in western Connecticut, though the number had decreased in recent days.

Trinity Health declined to provide the specific number of staff out with COVID.

“We’re dropping like flies,” said Sherri Dayton, a registered nurse at the Plainfield Emergency Care Center, an emergency center affiliated with Backus Hospital and part of the Hartford HealthCare System.

Bill Garrity, who serves as the president of the University Health Professionals Local 337, a union representing over 2,800 health care professionals at UConn Health, said keeping workers safe can start in the hospitals themselves. He wants to see more transparency from management about infections in the workplace to help control worker outbreaks.

“I’d love to know numbers [of workers infected] and where they’re stationed,” said Garrity.

Changes in workers’ compensation policies

Earlier in the pandemic, the state and federal government put in place crucial workers’ compensation policies and federal safety measures that have since either expired or been relaxed.

At the state level, in July 2020, Gov. Ned Lamont signed anexecutive order that automatically approved workers’ compensation for essential workers applying for benefits because they were infected with COVID between March 10 and May 20, 2020. The policy temporarily assumed that essential workers who contracted COVID did so at work. But that policy is no longer in effect.

Now, several health care professionals report that when they test positive for COVID, they’re often told they likely contracted it out in the community and therefore are not eligible for workers’ compensation.

In December 2020, after the temporary workers’ compensation policy had ended, Sherri Dayton tested positive for COVID. Earlier that week, her manager alerted her that she had been in contact with two patients who came into the hospital for a tick bite and a skin infection who were later found to have COVID, she said.

When Dayton reported her positive result and applied for workers’ compensation, she was told that she likely contracted the virus somewhere other than the hospital, and her request was denied.

Workers’ compensation covers a range of expenses resulting from workplace harm, including medical bills and a portion of lost wages. It also covers all future medical bills related to the injury or, in the case of COVID, the disease. At a time when the long-term effects of the virus are unknown, that safety net is critical, many say.

“Down the road, you might end up with an asthma problem. People didn’t know asbestos was going to cause long-term problems,” explained John Brady, vice president of AFT CT, a union representing health care professionals.

Brady added that nearly all COVID-related workers’ compensation requests he’s seen have been initially denied, and many health care workers don’t have the resources to know they should appeal the decision.

In Dayton’s case, she was compensated for lost wages and medical bills, but Dayton appealed the workers’ compensation denial in case she has future medical expenses associated with her infection. She has not received an update on her case in over a year.

OSHA, CDC policies in flux

Recent changes to federal policies also threaten to leave medical professionals less protected.

On Dec. 23, the CDC cut the quarantine period for infected health care workers from 10 days after a negative test to seven days. The agency noted that this was to help increase staffing for the coming omicron surge. The announcement also specified that the “isolation time can be cut further if there are staffing shortages.”

In July 2021, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency charged with ensuring workplace safety, issued a temporary standard that set specific COVID-related safety requirements for health care settings, including a requirement to develop a COVID hazard assessment and provide respirators for workers directly exposed to infectious cases.

At the end of 2021, that temporary standard lapsed. OSHA said it is committed to putting in place a permanent standard but has yet to do so. Even though the standard wasn’t perfect, explained Brady, it provided specific guidelines that health care facilities had to follow in terms of COVID workplace safety.

These lapses in policies at both the state and federal level have left health care workers with less workplace protection during the peak of COVID infection rates. Health care worker infections also put a strain on staffing at a time when the state’s health care system is already bursting at the seams, officials said.

“It’s obviously affected hospitals and health care workers from a physical standpoint of being sick but also from a standpoint of our volumes are higher than they have been in the past, and we’re also dealing with people who are unable to work because they’re testing positive for COVID,” said Dr. Seth Lotterman, an emergency room physician at Hartford Hospital.

Stretched thin, some hospitals are mandating overtime for certain health care professionals, often requiring them to stay for additional shifts with little notice. This can result in 12- to 16-hour work days.

On top of mandated overtime, Sherri Dayton reported that, in the emergency center, she and her colleagues have also been forced to treat an unsustainable number of patients at a time. Normally, she treats four patients at a time. Recently, she has been forced to treat six, seven, and, on a particularly difficult day, 11 patients at once.

“We are exhausted. And we are shouting at the top of our lungs, ‘Help us,’” said Dayton.

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