Since March, dozens of employees at central Illinois hospitals and clinics have contracted COVID-19. But leaders of the region’s healthcare institutions said the rate of their workers getting sick is lower than the general population, and the precautions they put in place protect patients and employees.
Further, some worry the fear around contracting COVID-19 is leading to people avoiding getting critical medical care.
Last week, Springfield Clinic released a statement saying four employees had tested positive for COVID-19. NPR Illinois asked leaders at SIU Medicine, Memorial Health System and Hospital Sisters Health System, which runs HSHS St. John’s Hospital, if they’ve had cases among their staff. They all said yes.
But there are no confirmed cases of workers passing the disease on to patients, they said.
“Do we come into contact more frequently with individuals who could be COVID positive? Hundred percent we do,” said Dr. Harold Lausen - chief medical officer at SIU Medicine. “But the preventive measures that we put into place actually makes our risk lower than honestly being in the community.”
SIU Medicine currently has one employee out with COVID-19, its fourth confirmed case of the coronavirus since March, according to a spokeswoman. Memorial Health System has six employees in isolation and has had 67 cases of COVID-19 among its 9,000 employees across central Illinois.
HSHS’ chief medical officer declined to give a specific number, but said the “prevalence is low” among its 15,000 employees across Illinois and Wisconsin. Springfield Clinic declined to answer questions about their cases.
Dr. Raj Govindaiah – chief medical officer for Memorial – said it’s safe to get medical care, and avoiding care could lead to bigger problems.
“We've done a great job of convincing people how serious COVID is,” Govindaiah said. “But we have failed to communicate that we are safe, hospitals, (doctors’) offices are safe for people to receive care.”
The hospitals and clinics have strict policies on masking, hand hygiene and cleaning, and they do regular symptom screening of everyone entering their facilities.
Exposure And Investigation
“There's no doubt healthcare workers are at increased risk than the general community,” said Dr. Marc Shelton, chief clinical officer with HSHS. “We've had a very low incidence of positive disease in our workforce. And we try to keep it that way. We put a lot of effort into keeping it that way.”
Shelton said they don’t release numbers of sick employees because of privacy concerns.
Govindaiah said Memorial Health System investigates how their employees became sick with COVID-19. In the early months of the pandemic, they found that some were contracting it in “community” settings at work, in break rooms for example and not in exam rooms or other clinical settings.
He said the health system had to reiterate rules about masks and social distancing.
“We had to double down on all of these things,” he said. “And thankfully we have not seen a cluster (of cases) at Memorial Health System for several months.”
Lausen, at SIU Medicine, said they work with the public health department to track confirmed cases. He said they also look at potential exposure to their staff, for example, if a physician sees a patient who has symptoms or later tests positive for COVID-19.
“We have to go through a whole process and make appropriate decisions, that might be quarantine versus active monitoring, et cetera,” he said.
If employees get sick with COVID-19 and it’s confirmed they were exposed at work or their exposure is unknown, they can take paid time off that does not count toward sick or vacation time.
Lausen said SIU Medicine hasn’t announced cases to the public because there hasn’t been a public health need to do so.
“It's been one here, one there over the time since March,” Lauson said. “If our review along with work with the county health department does not demonstrate exposure to other individuals, we don't see a reason to announce something that might violate someone's privacy.”
Govindaiah said Memorial has sent out communications about confirmed cases to its employees.
Healthcare leaders say they follow CDC guidelines for when healthcare workers should return to work, which have changed. For most, it is at least 10 days after symptoms first appeared, at least 24 hours after last fever without the use of fever-reducing medications, and symptoms such as cough or shortness of breath have improved.
Safe To Seek Care
Govindaiah, Lausen and Shelton said they are concerned people aren’t coming to the emergency room or clinic because of fears of contracting the coronavirus.
A presentation from Memorial showed emergency room visits were down 63% during the first months of the pandemic, and have only recovered to 73% of pre-pandemic numbers.
A study from the CDC found in the weeks following the declaration of COVID-19 as a national emergency, the number of emergency room visits dropped for heart attacks, strokes and low blood sugar.
“There are many issues that they may have, whether it's heart failure or heart attack, or bleeding issues, for example … where their risk of passing from the disease is worse than their chances if they get the virus,” said HSHS’ Shelton.
SIU Medicine is conducting a survey of parents asking them if they’ve considered taking children to the emergency room.