As COVID cases spiked earlier this year and began to wane in the spring, New Jersey hospital workers remained at high risk of contracting the virus.
More than 5,400 were infected in the first four months of 2021, according to new data released by the state, and at least one North Jersey nurse died in recent weeks.
“These people are putting their neck on the line here, and still sustaining infections,” said Reynald Panettieri, director of the Rutgers Institute for Translational Medicine and Science and co-author of two studies on COVID among health care workers.
Panettieri’s research found that, at the peak of the pandemic last year, hospital workers were two to three times more likely to become infected with COVID than non-health care workers.
“The infection rates are far better than they were in March of last year,” Panettieri said of the new state data, “but they’re still significant.”
Not all workers were infected on the job, however. And the hospitals — on whom the state relied for the new data — claim that the vast majority became infected through other activities or contacts.
The new data was released by the state Health Department four months after Gov. Phil Murphy said the public had “a right to know” about outbreaks within medical institutions.
The new page on the Health Department’s COVID-19 dashboard, however, identifies no outbreaks.
It simply shows the number of cases at each hospital within the last 30 days: 13 at St. Joseph’s University Medical Center in Paterson as of Friday, for example, and eight at The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood. Without indicating whether the cases are connected or where the staff memberswork within the hospital, it’s impossible to interpret their significance.
From a statewide high of 162 total staff cases shown on Jan. 5, the number appears to have dropped as vaccination became more common.
Here’s what else isn’t shown on the state dashboard:
- How the New Jersey Hospital Association, which collects the self-reported information from individual hospitals and passes it along to the state, determined that fewer than one-third of the workers — 30.09% — became infected as a result of hospital-related activities, while more than two-thirdsof the infections — 69.91% — were acquired out in the community.
- How hospitals compare with one another. The number of cases at each hospital over the previous month is shown, but there’s no rate of infections for total personnel — a key statistic, since hospital staffs vary in size.
- How this compares with last year, as the pandemic raged and before vaccines were available.
Crucially, hospitals don’t report the vaccination rates among their staffs.
When that information became available recently for nursing homes, it showed that many long-term care facilities in the state do not have sufficient levels of vaccination among their staffs to prevent the virus from spreading.
Acceptance of the vaccine among health care workers has been far from universal. As many as 30% of employees at many hospitals have declined vaccines, their executives have said.
A nurse’s recent death
An Englewood Health nurse who died of COVID-19 on April 15 — believed to be the first front-line worker at the hospital to die in the pandemic, 14 months after it began — was among those infected during
the state’s reporting period.
Although hospital workers were offered shots in late December as part of the first priority group, Cecilia Pascual wanted to wait and see how others fared before getting one, her daughter said. Eventually, she scheduled her vaccine for March 19.
Two days before her appointment, though, the 62-year-old nurse tested positive for COVID. Within a month, her respiratory infection turned critical, and she was hospitalized and intubated — and died.
But her family doesn’t know where the 29-year Englewood employee, who safely cared for COVID patients throughout the pandemic, was exposed to the virus.
Four of five other family members who shared her home in Dumont also tested positive the same day Pascual did, said Tara Roark, her daughter. All of them worked outside the house — as a nurse, a teacher, a postal carrier and a graphic designer.
“The points of contact and exposure could be anywhere,” said Roark. “This virus is everywhere, all around us.”
Incomplete, but a start
Despite its shortcomings, the first-timepublic reporting of hospital staff infections is a start, officials say.
“This is an unprecedented level of transparency by hospitals in the state, and we’re proud of that,” said the hospital association’s vice president, Kerry McKean Kelly. “The information that individuals can now get on the dashboard offers added insight on the impact of COVID-19 on health care workers.
No other state “comes close to the level of information that New Jersey provides for consumers,” she added.
Debbie White, president of Health Professional and Allied Employees, the state’s largest hospital workers’ union, said, “It’s a victory for us, but somewhat bittersweet.”
The disappointment, said White, is because the reporting started only on Dec. 28, 2020. It omits all of the data from last year, when the pandemic infected hundreds of health care workers and killed more than 250, including at least 50 people employed by hospitals. No public accounting of those hospital workers’ deaths has ever been required, in contrast to the reporting required of nursing homes.
The union found that more than half of the 1,085 members it surveyed in July said they had been exposed to COVID-19 on the job, but only one in three learned of their exposure from their employer. More than 200 of the survey’s respondents said they became sick with complications of COVID.
And more than 300 members of JNESO, another nurses’ union, developed COVID, said Doug Placa, its executive director. Seven died.
The Rutgers studies of hospitals in Newark and New Brunswick offer some insights about hospital staff cases, Panettieri said.
- The location of the hospital makes a difference: In Newark, hospital workers were more likely to be infected than in New Brunswick. The higher community infection rate in Newark at the time increased the risk for people living and riding public transportation there.
- And the job within the hospital also mattered: “We found nursing was most vulnerable,” said Panettieri. “Then there was another group with very high incidence of infections — people who did not have direct patient contact, such as workers in nutrition, housekeeping, security and maintenance.”
More comprehensive statewide reporting would have enabled comparisons of how effective different facilities were at preventing the virus from spreading. It might have shown which job types were most at risk and should be given priority for scarce protective gear in future outbreaks. Consumers could have considered the information when choosing where to seek elective care.
“When you consider that we have lost nine months’ worth of the most critical data we have, it’s no accident we started gathering this data late in the game,” White said. “There was a lot of lobbying going on for months.”
Earlier staff outbreaks
Not included, for example, is data about an outbreak at the Carrier Clinic that started on Halloween and ultimately infected nearly 90 people in two units of the behavioral health facility,…