Coronavirus outbreak strikes dozens of workers at Miami VA hospital

By JAY WEAVER AND BEN CONARCK | Miami Herald | Published: June 18, 2020

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MIAMI (Tribune News Service) — Some 30 health care workers have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Miami VA hospital during the past week — the largest outbreak at the facility since the start of the pandemic — a spokesman said.

The spike in employees testing positive for the highly contagious respiratory disease prompted further assessments of more than 200 workers at the veterans’ hospital in downtown Miami, the spokesman said, adding that none of the people who tested positive recently have yet been hospitalized.

An “infection control investigation” resulted in 28 employees testing positive for the virus and being quarantined at home — doubling the total number of COVID-19 cases among Miami VA staff employees since the pandemic hit South Florida in March, spokesman Shane Suzuki said.

It is the largest reported outbreak among health care workers at a Florida hospital. A few staff workers at the Miami VA told the Herald that they were spooked by the spread.

“This is the first time we were ever notified of an outbreak,” said a nurse who works at the hospital. “Normally, they are so hush-hush. But that’s how bad it was. The nurses were really scared. “

Suzuki downplayed the significance of the outbreak, saying the total number of infected employees represented “only 2%” of the 3,000 staff members at the Miami VA. About two-thirds of them are doctors, nurses and health care workers, and the balance are administrative staffers.

Suzuki also said that 13 military veterans who have tested positive for COVID-19 are being treated at the 372-bed hospital.

He said that the source of the outbreak at the Miami VA could not be attributed to infected patients or to any one section of the hospital, such as the progressive care unit that was temporarily shut down last week for cleaning. A few employees contacted the Herald to complain that the progressive care unit, where a blower was installed because of an air conditioning problem, might have been the source of the coronavirus outbreak.

Suzuki disputed the claim, saying the PCU is not a COVID-19 ward.

He also challenged the suggestion that infected patients might be spreading the virus to Miami VA health care workers.

“There is no evidence of patient to staff transmission,” Suzuki also said. “As community transmission continues to rise, it is impossible to determine where any of the individuals originally contracted the virus.”

Overall, most U.S. hospitals have had much greater success in preventing outbreaks among their employees than what was seen in China and Italy, said Roger Shapiro, associate professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Shapiro said “transmission in most hospitals has really been driven down to nearly zero.”

“I think that’s because we’ve addressed this in a smart manner by enforcing universal mask use by staff in hospitals and eye shields,” Shapiro said during a press call on Wednesday.

Mask usage among employees at the Miami VA hospital became a flashpoint in late March after workers there complained that the administration told those outside the COVID-19 wards to wear one surgical mask for a week at a time.

The directive followed a VA Office of Inspector General report that cited a shortage of N95 respirator masks at the facility and others in the system.

Suzuki, the Miami VA spokesperson, did not address whether a lack of personal protective equipment might have led to the recent outbreak among hospital employees.

In general, the Miami VA and other veterans’ facilities in Florida have fared comparatively well during the pandemic.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ website, more than 835 patients and employees have tested positive for COVID-19 at the VA’s six hospitals in Florida, with one-quarter “active” and three-quarters “convalescent” cases. Of the total cases, there have been 35 deaths at VA facilities statewide, almost all older patients with underlying health problems.

At the Miami VA, 230 patients and employees have been diagnosed with COVID-19, with a similar breakdown of active and convalescent cases. Of the total, there have been seven deaths, including one staff employee who worked at a VA clinic in Broward County.

©2020 Miami Herald
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