Twenty-two months into the pandemic, healthcare professionals are dealing with record-breaking hospital admissions, unsustainable work schedules and abuse from a public that is frustrated and exhausted.
On top of all that, they are also being infected by the virus at higher rates than ever before, federal safety standards around COVID-related working conditions in hospitals have been peeled back, and changes in workers’ compensation policies are making it harder for many who cannot function.
“We’ve had a record number of employees who have been out with COVID,” said Yale New Haven Health CEO Marna Borgstrom.
On Wednesday, 439 employees were out across the Yale system, down from 700 in a single day last week. Tom Balcezak, chief clinical officer at YNHH, called the trends in worker infections even more frightening than hospitalizations.
Hartford HealthCare reported 1,500 workers out with COVID on Wednesday, down from 1,600 last week. As of Jan. 11, more than 500 hospital staff were out at Nuvance Health, a network that includes Danbury Hospital in western Connecticut, though the number had dropped in recent days.
Trinity Health declined to provide the specific number of employees out with COVID.
“We’re falling like flies,” said Sherri Dayton, a registered nurse at the Plainfield Emergency Care Center, an emergency center affiliated with Backus Hospital and part of the Hartford HealthCare System.
Bill Garrity, who chairs University Health Professionals Local 337, a union representing more than 2,800 health professionals at UConn Health, said it could begin in the hospitals themselves, to keep workers safe. He wants to see more transparency from management about infections in the workplace to help control outbreaks of workers.
“I would love to know numbers [of workers infected] and where they are stationed, ”Garrity said.
Changes in occupational injury policies
Earlier in the pandemic, the state and the federal government introduced important workers’ compensation policies and federal security measures that have since either expired or been relaxed.
At the state level, in July 2020, Governor Ned Lamont signed a executive order that automatically approved worker compensation for significant workers who applied for benefits because they were infected with COVID between March 10 and May 20, 2020. The policy temporarily assumed that significant workers who received COVID did so at work. But that policy is no longer valid.
Now, several health professionals report that when they test positive for COVID, they are often told that they have probably entered into a contract with it in the community and are therefore not eligible for worker compensation.
In December 2020, after the substitution compensation policy ended, Sherri Dayton tested positive for COVID. Earlier in the week, her manager warned her that she had been in contact with two patients who came into the hospital to get a tick bite and a skin infection that later turned out to have COVID, she said.
When Dayton reported her positive result and applied for work compensation, she was told she had probably contracted the virus somewhere other than the hospital, and her request was denied.
Occupational injury compensation covers a number of expenses as a result of injuries in the workplace, including medical bills and part of lost wages. It also covers all future medical bills related to the injury or, in the case of COVID, the illness. At a time when the long-term effects of the virus are unknown, the safety net is critical, many say.
“Out of the way, you could end up with an asthma problem. People did not know that asbestos would cause long-term problems,” explained John Brady, vice president of AFT CT, a union representing health professionals.
Brady added that almost all COVID-related workers’ compensation claims he has seen have initially been rejected and many healthcare professionals do not have the resources to know they need to appeal the decision.
In Dayton’s case, she was compensated for lost wages and medical bills, but Dayton appealed the denial of workers’ compensation in the event that she has future medical expenses associated with her infection. She has not received an update on her case for over a year.
OSHA, CDC policies changing
Recent changes in federal policies also threaten to leave doctors less protected.
On December 23, the CDC reduced the quarantine period for infected healthcare workers from 10 days after a negative test to seven days. The agency noted that this was to help increase staffing for the upcoming omicron increase. The announcement also specified that “isolation time may be further reduced if staff shortages occur.”
In July 2021, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency tasked with ensuring workplace safety, issued a temporary standard setting specific COVID-related safety requirements for health environments, including a requirement to develop a COVID hazard assessment and deliver respiratory protection for workers directly exposed to contagious cases.
By the end of 2021, the temporary standard lapsed. OSHA said it is committed to introducing a permanent standard, but has not yet done so. Although the standard was not perfect, Brady explained, it provided specific guidelines that health facilities should follow regarding COVID safety in the workplace.
These lapses of policies at both the state and federal levels have left healthcare professionals with less protection in the workplace below the peak of COVID infection rates. Infections by health workers are also putting pressure on staff at a time when the state’s health system is already bursting at the seams, officials said.
“It has obviously affected hospitals and healthcare professionals from a physical point of view of being ill, but also from a point of view that our volumes are higher than they have been in the past and we are also dealing with people who are not are able to work because they “test positive for COVID again,” said Dr. Seth Lotterman, an emergency room physician at Hartford Hospital.
Extensive thinning imposes overtime on some hospitals for certain health professionals, often requiring them to stay in additional shifts at short notice. This can result in 12 to 16 hour workdays.
In addition to mandatory overtime, Sherri Dayton reported that she and her colleagues at the emergency center have also been forced to treat an unsustainable number of patients at a time. She usually treats four patients at a time. Recently, she has been forced to treat six, seven and, on a particularly difficult day, 11 patients at once.
“We are exhausted. And we cry out in earnest, ‘Help us,'” Dayton said.