Six NCH Healthcare workers on self isolation; 14 Lee Health employees getting tested for COVID-19

Liz Freeman
Fort Myers News-Press

Note: This story has been updated to correct that Lee County EMS personnel had attended an EMS conference in Tampa and have not been contacted by the state Department of Health.

Southwest Florida hospitals are facing absenteeism of frontline caregivers due to the novel coronavirus and bracing for it to worsen if there’s a surge.

Out of 28 employees who remain in isolation due to contact risk with two patients at Gulf Coast Medical Center who tested positive for the disease, 14 are being tested for COVID-19, Dr. Larry Antonucci, president and CEO of Lee Health, said during a Thursday media briefing.

Staffing of the emergency rooms and critical care units could face a crunch but that isn’t the case yet, he said.

“As of today there’s no issue of staffing at our hospitals,” he said.

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The NCH Healthcare System in Collier County has six employees who are self-isolating because they had been on a cruise through Port Everglades in Broward County that is a location for positive cases, said Jonathan Kling, chief nursing officer for NCH.

So far, there have been three cases reported in Collier, and three in Lee, including one death.

The most recent case is a 57-year-old man from Lee County although it was not clear if his case is travel related or not, according to the state Department of Health.

Antonucci said the person had sought medical care at an outpatient Lee Convenient Care location and is in private isolation.

Two more people out of Broward County had positive results early Thursday, a 65-year-old man for whom it’s not clear if it is travel related or not; and a 61-year-old man from Broward that is travel-related.

Later Thursday, the state announced a new positive result in a 68-year-old man from Seminole County who had taken a cruise on the Nile River in Egypt, part of ongoing infection tracing, according to the state.

Florida health authorities do not disclose where people who test positive are staying during isolation or if they are hospitalized until clear of being ill with symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath.

Public health officials at the state and national level emphasize frequent hand washing and social distancing to avoid infection.

Eighty percent of residents who get COVID-19 will have mild cases and may not even know they have it, officials at a Thursday news conference said.

The state is focusing on those most at risk: those over the age of 60 with serious medical conditions.

Four firefighter/EMS workers from the Estero Fire Rescue attended an EMS conference March 4-6 in Tampa and none are exhibiting symptoms, according to Estero Fire spokeswoman Susan Lindenmuth.

The EMS conference is where state health officials have traced a positive test result for someone out of Broward.

No personnel from Lee County EMS attended the Tampa conference, according to Betsy Clayton, Lee County spokeswoman.

Collier County EMS had six employees attend, according to EMS Chief Tabatha Butcher.

Butcher said none of the employees are symptomatic yet are working from home for 14 days or until they are cleared to return by the health department.

“At this time they are working at home so they are compensated,” she said. “Worker’s comp kicks in only if it can be related to a work exposure.”

Lee Health earlier had 31 health care workers go on self-quarantine for 14 days after exposure March 4 to the two Gulf Coast patients, both 77, who tested positive. One of the patients, a woman, died the day after she was admitted.

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The employees use paid time off for the first seven days and qualify for worker’s compensation starting the 8th day, Antonucci said. That is the system’s standard practice.

One question is what happens to hospital employees who don’t have any PTO left and does that mean no paycheck for work-related illness, Willa Fuller, executive director of the Florida Nurses Association, said.

“I think every hospital has a different policy,” Fuller said, regarding when worker’s compensation insurance kicks in.

Florida nurses generally do not belong to a union for assistance with their employers at hospitals on labor issues, Fuller said.

Lee Health nurses are not members of the FNA that advocates for the state’s 300,000 registered nurses and handles collective bargaining for its members, Fuller said.

A looming concern is a surge of COVID-19 cases and too many frontline caregivers being on 14-day quarantine and a run on supplies in hospitals.

Officials with National Nurses United earlier this week said members are outraged over loosened protection guidelines to contain COVID-19 issued by the Centers for Disease Control earlier this week.

The change includes no longer using N-95 respirators with patients and using simple surgical masks instead, and no longer requiring suspected or confirmed patients being in isolation rooms at all time with negative air flow, according to the union.

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Lee Health has 103 isolation rooms combined at its facilities and NCH has 60.

“If nurses and health care workers aren’t protected, that means patients and the public are not protected,” Bonnie Castillo, executive director of the national nurses’ said in a statement.

A March 3 survey of nurses around the country said the vast majority of hospitals are not prepared to handle and contain COVID-19.

The nurse respondents said only 19% of their employers had a policy for dealing with employees suspected of having the infection, according to the findings.

Officials with Lee Health and NCH have said they are prepared as they can be, and have experience with unusual events from hurricane season and patient surges during flu season and the influx of seasonal residents. NCH has a plan if employee absenteeism climbs high.

"We have plans in place on our website and have on-call lists we can utilize," Georgine Kruedelbach, infection prevention director for NCH, said. 

Flu patient volumes have been on the decline in recent weeks and that helps, Lee Health and NCH officials said.

The national survey of nurses said 63% had access to N-95 respirators and 30% said their employer had enough protective gear like masks if there was a rapid surge of COVID-19 cases.

Only 14% of the nurses said their hospitals had an overflow plan to include additional staffing, according to the results.

(Breaking news reporter Mike Braun contributed to this report.)