health

Hundreds of Public Hospital Workers Test Positive for COVID-19

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chirlane McCray visit Bellevue Hospital workers, April 10, 2020.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chirlane McCray visit Bellevue Hospital workers, April 10, 2020. Photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

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More than 900 staffers in the city’s public hospitals have tested positive for COVID-19 as coronavirus has flooded everywhere from emergency rooms to intensive care units, data released Wednesday show.

Meanwhile, over 3,000 workers called in sick during one 24-hour period between Tuesday and Wednesday alone, the numbers indicate.

The Health & Hospitals Corp. revealed the snapshot of absences and provided the first glimpse of how the potentially deadly virus is hitting its doctors, nurses and technicians at the 11 city-run hospitals. HHC’s staff ranges between 39,000 and 45,000.

City hospital officials said 924 workers have been infected with coronavirus. That number, though, doesn’t include numerous hospital employees displaying COVID-19 symptoms who were sent home to self-quarantine over the last few weeks without being tested.

The HHC did not release any information on the number of employees who have succumbed to the deadly virus. At least five nurses in city-run hospitals have died of COVID-19, according to their union.

HHC released the figures after Mayor Bill de Blasio on Tuesday ordered them to do so following a report by THE CITY detailing a crackdown on staff calling in sick.

A memo to public hospital workers said leaders "identified very high rates of call outs and absences that do not appear to be consistent with patterns of COVID infection."
A memo to public hospital workers said leaders “identified very high rates of call outs and absences that do not appear to be consistent with patterns of COVID infection.” Photo: Obtained by THE CITY

HHC has yet to produce a breakdown, by worker category, of how many doctors, nurses and technicians have been infected by the virus. Officials also did not answer THE CITY’s query seeking the average percentage of its workforce absent on a weekly basis since the first New Yorker tested positive for the virus March 1.

Christopher Miller, an HHC spokesperson, said the agency is working on releasing more data. But as of Wednesday its partial disclosure stood in contrast with the Police and Fire departments, which have regularly released coronavirus-related illness and absence numbers about its frontline work forces amid the pandemic.

On Tuesday, when THE CITY asked about the doctors’ note policy, de Blasio allowed the release of HHC data as he defended the new requirement that medical staff provide a note certifying they’re actually sick to qualify for sick leave.

The goal, the mayor said, is “to make sure we can save lives, to make sure that every health care worker is where they need them.”

Call-Out Doubt Hinted

On Monday, THE CITY revealed that HHC’s chief medical officer and the head of the system’s human resources department sent staff an internal memo noting a wave of absences during the last few weeks as waves of coronavirus patients swept into hospital ERs citywide.

The memo notified staff they had to produce a doctor’s note certifying they were actually sick — and, if they couldn’t, their leave would be unpaid. The note also suggested that not all absences were legitimate.

“In some places we have also identified very high rates of call outs and absences that do not appear to be consistent with patterns of COVID infection,” the missive read.

The memo explained that the excessive number of absences was increasing patient caseloads for staff who reported to work, stating, “Because all of you are critically needed in our facilities we have to address this issue so that some of our staff is not bearing an extra burden for those who are staying home without approved leave.”

Many of the city’s public hospitals have been overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients in recent weeks as doctors, nurses and technicians have struggled with huge caseloads and a dearth of proper protective gear.

During a news conference Tuesday, de Blasio said he would be “happy” to release the HHC data as he stressed the importance of having enough medical personnel to deal with the crisis.

“We need those key health care workers right now,” he said. “We just need a system that creates consistency and variability.”

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