A health care provider at Massachusetts General Hospital and another at Massachusetts Eye and Ear have tested positive for coronavirus, bringing to four the number of Boston hospital workers who see patients known to be infected.
Neither hospital would identify the individuals or their specific jobs, but officials said the providers are both in isolation at home and doing well. The Globe reported this past weekend that two doctors at Brigham and Women’s Hospital have also contracted the virus and are in home quarantine.
The number of infected health care workers is growing around the country and is expected to keep climbing, which eventually could lead to shortages in a front-line workforce vital to fighting the pandemic. It is unclear how the Boston caregivers contracted the virus.
Health care workers are at particular risk for infection because they work with sick patients, and some have complained about not having adequate protective gear. Health care providers protect themselves against contagious respiratory illnesses by wearing gowns, gloves, masks, and eye protection. But supplies of this equipment have been running low, raising fears that infections of coronavirus among doctors and nurses could rise.
Two emergency room doctors, in Washington state and New Jersey, are in critical condition because of coronavirus, The New York Times reported.
But because this virus is so contagious, providers are also at risk just being out in the community, noted Dr. David C. Hooper, chief of infection control at Mass. General.
Social distancing is key to protecting against the rapid spread of coronavirus, including among health care workers, Hooper said.
"We’re instructing people if they don’t need to be on site, to be working from home,” he said. “Our workforce is in OK shape at the moment, but we’re very closely monitoring that.”
But there is growing impact on colleagues and on patients. The Brigham has sent home 49 employees for 14 days who had close contact with the two infected doctors there. Less than half of those furloughed Brigham workers are nurses.
In an e-mail to Mass. General doctors Monday, Dr. Timothy Ferris indicated that more than 100 employees in the Partners HealthCare System, which includes Mass. General, Mass. Eye and Ear, and the Brigham, have been sent home because of exposure to the virus.
"Over the past few days I have heard from some physicians that we are being too aggressive in our response. While it is important not to overreact or needlessly prompt fear, if you have any remaining doubts about the seriousness of this pandemic, we already have very sick COVID-19 patients in our ICUs, we have test-confirmed symptomatic physicians and nurses, and systemwide we have furloughed more than a hundred members of the workforce because of possible exposures,'' wrote Ferris, chief executive of the Mass. General Physicians Organization.
In a written statement, Mass. General leaders said they are notifying staff, patients, and others who have had close contact with the infected Mass. General health care worker "to alert them to the potential exposure and advise them as to the appropriate action to take. We believe that for most of the contacts, the risk of contracting the disease from this health care worker is low.''
Brigham spokesperson Erin McDonough said in an e-mail to the Globe that her hospital undertook an “intensive tracing process” that involved a detailed review of every patient and employee the two infected providers interacted with during a particular time period.
Staff who had close contact with either provider ― 15 minutes or more at a distance of less than 6 feet ― are quarantined at home for 14 days and undergo twice daily symptom monitoring, she said. Those with no close contact are allowed to work but must wear a mask and monitor themselves for symptoms for 14 days.
Patients with close contact are monitored for symptoms.
At Berkshire Medical Center, where at least five patients have been hospitalized with the virus earlier this month, about 70 nurses are quarantined at home after being exposed to those patients, according to the Massachusetts Nurses Association.
There was a gap of several days after the patients were admitted and before they tested positive for Covid-19, during which nurses were not wearing the highest level of protective equipment, hospital executives have said. It is not yet known if any of these nurses have been infected.