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Health care workers run risks with Covid-19, but almost all remain virus-free

About 1% of the roughly 30,000 employees of Kaleida Health, Catholic Health, Erie County Medical Center and Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center have tested positive for the virus, according to data provided to The Buffalo News by the hospital systems.

That includes all of their employees, not just doctors, nurses and other front-line health care workers who face risks while tending to patients with the Covid-19 virus.

Hospital officials point to community spread – not exposure at the hospitals – for the confirmed cases.

They credit measures that protect their employees at work, including personal protective equipment, as the major factor in keeping the workers safer than the general public.

“They’re actually safer when they’re in a facility than when they’re in the community," Catholic Health CEO Mark Sullivan said. "They don’t wear PPE all the way home. They don’t wear PPE when they go to the gas station and fill up their car. They don’t wear PPE when they go to the grocery store."

Combined, 18% of the hospital systems' employees who were tested were found to be infected with the coronavirus, compared with 40% of people tested statewide.

“The fact that over 98% of the workforce continues to be safe and healthy is remarkable," Kaleida Health Chief of Staff Michael P. Hughes said. "Would we like that to be zero? Sure, but we’re dealing with a community-spread virus, and that’s nearly impossible.”

"Keeping that number as low as it is as a proportion of our total workforce shows our precautions are working," ECMC spokesman Peter K. Cutler said.

Coronavirus need to know (map image updated 5/20)

Among employees who have been tested, the rates of infection vary by employer:

• At Catholic Health, 106 employees had tested positive for Covid-19 as of Friday, while 300 tested negative.

• At Kaleida, through last Monday, 124 staffers had tested positive for the virus, while 681 tested negative.

• At ECMC, as of April 10, 40 employees had tested positive and 134 negative.

• Roswell Park on Wednesday reported 18 employees had tested positive and some 200 had tested negative.

As of last Monday, there were 73 Covid-19 patients at Kaleida's hospitals and 38 at ECMC. Catholic Health had 125 hospitalized patients late last week.

"It is also important to note that because of the essential nature of our work, a higher percentage of health care workers are being tested than compared to the general public," said Dr. Kevin Shiley, medical director of infection prevention and control for Catholic Health.

About 5% of the hospitals' workforces have been tested, compared with less than 1% of the total population of Erie and Niagara counties, according to the State Health Department.

“If you tried to come to work, you’re going to be stopped at the door at Buffalo General or (Millard Fillmore) Suburban or wherever, you’re going to have your temperature read, asked to mask up and they’ll ask you if you have any symptoms," Hughes said. "But if you have a temperature, if you’re flagged, you can’t come to work.”

Union and hospital leaders agree the virus hasn't kept hospital workers home or affected their ability to care for patients. All the hospitals report fewer employees are calling in sick than last year at this time.

"Even though we're at higher risk — we're taking care of Covid-positive patients — we also have PPE that we're wearing, and we're very conscious about washing our hands and making sure we're protecting ourselves and our patients," said Cori A. Gambini, a registered nurse and president of Communications Workers of America Local 1168, which represents employees at Kaleida and Catholic Health.

But more testing is needed, Gambini said.

"If there was ample testing, you'd probably want your health care workers almost tested routinely," Gambini said. "You wouldn't want your health care workers in the hospital taking care of patients if they were positive. There's so much unknown."

The federal government wants to know how many health care workers have been diagnosed with the virus, but so far it has failed to find out. Most states' cooperation is spotty, and New York State doesn't even try.

“The Department of Health does not collect occupational status when someone is tested in New York State," spokesman Jeffrey W. Hammond said. "While we are prioritizing testing for health care workers, nursing home employees and first responders on the front lines, we do not have data of positive test results by occupation.”

In a report Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said its standard Covid-19 case reporting form includes a question about whether the patient is a health care worker. But, the CDC said, that question was answered for only 16% of the positive tests it received through April 9. Only 12 states answered that question more than 80% of the time.

Among those 12 states, which do not include New York, health care personnel accounted for 11% of the positive Covid-19 tests.

The CDC said 55% of the health care workers with the virus said their only contact with an infected person had been at work.

"With community transmission throughout the region, it is difficult to determine the source of the virus in most cases," Shiley said.

"You can’t determine if it’s a workplace injury, like a roofer falling off a roof," Sullivan said.

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