Health Care Workers Becoming Infected With COVID-19

Dozens of health care workers in South Florida are out sick with the coronavirus. But not all local hospitals are releasing information about the number of staff infected.

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It’s been a long year for Maria Sulayman, a critical care nurse at Jackson Memorial Hospital’s rapid response team, who has treated patients with the coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic.

“I have seen people with no medical history being in the intensive care unit,” Sulayman said. “This virus, you are OK one second and the next, you are not.”

She made it through the spring without testing positive, but that changed on her birthday, June 22.

“I had a feeling that I contracted it knowing that there were a few coworkers who had tested positive,” Sulayman said, adding her symptoms started mildly.

Maria Sulayman is a critical care nurse at Jackson Memorial Hospital's rapid response team.

“A couple days after that, I couldn’t get a breath in at all to the point that I thought I had to go to the hospital,” Sulayman said. “Not being able to breathe is actually the scariest thing you can go through.”

Like many health care workers, Sulayman feels her family is also on the front lines. She tells NBC 6 her 23-year-old son and 20-year-old daughter, who is immunocompromised, contracted the virus too after her.

“I was terrified. I felt I had just killed my daughter just because of being around her,” Sulayman said.

Sulayman says it was a difficult time for her family but all three have since recovered from the virus. 

Maria Sulayman, a critical care nurse from Jackson Memorial Hospital, pictured with her son and daughter. The three contracted the coronavirus and have since recovered.

Hospital leaders worry a trickle of sick calls could turn into a tidal wave.

Lidia Amoretti, a spokesperson for Jackson Health System, tells NBC 6 the range of employees sick with the virus has been between 200 to 130 since June, adding that’s about 1% of their workforce. As of Wednesday, 137 employees were out with COVID-19, including 39 nurses.

While the percentage of sick employees is low, Jackson has taken steps to prepare for staff shortages.

“Jackson Health System has developed several strategies to cover staffing. Up to 150 state-agency nurses are being hired and deployed. More than half of them have already arrived at Jackson and are working,” Amoretti wrote in an email.

Amoretti says Jackson Memorial Hospital reported the highest number of infected employees with 60. She provided a breakdown by facility:

Source: Jackson Health System

Baptist Health says they have 141 employees out due to COVID-19 across their organization. Of those, 69 are clinical employees and 72 are non-clinical employees. Baptist says the number of infected staff is less than 1% of their workforce but they are also taking steps to cover for sick employees.

“As an organization with 10 hospitals, we are able to transfer staff across our organization as needed in order to care for our patients,” said Baptist Health's spokesperson Georgi Morales Pipkin. ”We worked with the state to secure additional staffing and they will be providing additional staff including nurses, respiratory therapist and patient care techs beginning next week.”

Baptist tells NBC 6 they also hired 100 new full-time workers in the past few weeks and 200 day-to-day workers to help with the increase in caseload from COVID-19 patients.

Broward Health, Memorial Healthcare System, Mount Sinai Medical Center, U-Health and HCA, which includes Kendall Regional Medical Center and Mercy Hospital, did not provide the total number of workers infected to NBC 6. 

“While we have had caregivers test positive for COVID-19, we currently have coverage for those who are out sick,” a Broward Health spokesperson said.

Memorial told us they don’t have the specific number of workers infected but they have contracted 100 nurses to fill in when needed.

Catherine Holly, an HCA’s spokesperson, did not provide the total number of staff infected across its facilities, but wrote in an email: “As COVID cases continue to increase in South Florida, staffing is a top priority for all hospitals. We are actively working to ensure our caregivers have the support they need to safely and effectively care for our patients, including bringing in additional nurses from our sister facilities in other markets, optimizing recruitment to expand staffing and contracting local and national nursing support.”

Some unions representing hospital employees tell NBC 6 they feel out of the loop. 

Rublas Ruiz, a critical care nurse at Kendall Regional Medical Center, says the spread of the virus among health care workers has impacted staffing.

“A lot of our workers in the hospital have been infected with the virus and not being able to go to work,” Ruiz said, adding the nurse-to-patient ratio increased from two to three patients per nurse.

Rublas Ruiz is an ICU nurse at Kendall Regional Medical Center.

Ruiz says it’s been an ongoing battle for him and his colleagues.

“It’s been really sad. I have been there since the beginning of the pandemic,” Ruiz said. “We have done a lot to try to save these patients and sometimes you cannot do much for them.”

Sulayman says leaders and workers from Jackson are fighting the virus with everything they have but they need help from the community.

“We are doing the best we can but we cannot do this alone. We will lose this battle,” Sulayman said. “We are in a crisis situation.” 

Despite her own experience, Sulayman says she is eager to return to work.

“I’m just trying to get complete strength because what I am about to walk into is a war zone,” Sulayman said. 

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