health

Public Hospitals Demand Doctors’ Notes from Absent Staffers

Medical workers greet Mayor Bill de Blasio outside Bellevue Hospital, April 10 2020.
Medical workers greet Mayor Bill de Blasio outside Bellevue Hospital, April 10 2020. Photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

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The city’s public hospitals have started making medical staff who call in sick produce a doctor’s note amid a “very high rate” of absences as the coronavirus crisis sweeps through the system, THE CITY has learned.

Top officials at the city Health & Hospitals Corp., which runs 11 public hospitals, sent out a staff-wide memo on Friday hinting at questions over the legitimacy of some call-outs — even as at least five HHC nurses have died from COVID-19-related illnesses.

“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,” said the memo, obtained by THE CITY and sent by HHC’s chief medical officer, Dr. Machelle Allen, and the head of human resources, Yvette Villanueva.

NYC Health + Hospitals Vice President for Human Resources Yvette Villanueva, left, and Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer Machelle Allen.
NYC Health + Hospitals Vice President for Human Resources Yvette Villanueva, left, and Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer Machelle Allen. Photo: NYC Health + Hospitals

The missive does thank those who “have acted heroically under very difficult circumstances.”

HHC officials could not provide a breakdown of staff absences in the last few weeks as the number of hospitalizations skyrocketed in New York City. In recent days, the rate of new hospitalizations has slowed, health officials say.

Doctors, nurses and technicians in the city’s hospitals have struggled over the last four weeks to keep up under sometimes chaotic conditions, shortages of protective gear and dangerously high patient caseloads.

And as the pandemic has grown in ferocity, more and more staff at HHC hospitals have called in sick, officials said.

‘An Extra Burden’

Fewer staff on duty increased the patient caseload for those who made it to work — a point the memo made in explaining the reason for the new call-out procedures.

“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,” the note said.

“As a response to this staffing emergency, we will be implementing new processes to ensure that those who are out and using sick or COVID leave are entitled to use that leave,” the memo states.

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 staff requesting sick leave now must provide documentation, such as the positive results of a COVID-19 test or a doctor’s note saying the employee displaying symptoms of either COVID or non-COVID illnesses. Staff will have five days to produce the required documentation, the memo states.

“This change is required because every member of our staff is essential to this COVID response,” the memo says.

A Dearth of Information

HHC officials did not address THE CITY’s questions about how many staffers have called in sick over the last few weeks.

The hospital agency has refused for weeks to reveal how many doctors, nurses and medical technicians have tested positive for the virus or been required to self-quarantine after displaying symptoms that are likely COVID-19.

After this story was published, Christopher Miller, an HHC spokesperson emailed a statement saying “we are all pulling together so that we can save more New Yorkers.”

“We are in unprecedented circumstances and our frontline heroes are going above and beyond to keep New Yorkers safe,” he said. “We are doing everything we can to adjust to a rapidly evolving situation, and in the process reduce undue burden on employees and ensure that our facilities are staffed appropriately. Understandably these are frightening times, and ”

Union officials identified five nurses at city public hospitals who have died of complications caused by the virus.

They are Yaw Asante, a registered nurse at Lincoln Hospital, Susan Sisgundo, a neuro ICU nurse at Bellevue Hospital; Aleyamma John, a registered nurse at Queens Hospital Center; Freda Ocran, a psychiatric nurse at Jacobi Medical Center, and Theresa Lococo, a pediatric nurse at Kings County Hospital.

On Monday, the New York State Nurses Association had no comment on the new protocols.

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