Massachusetts General Hospital, which treated the state’s first COVID-19 patient to die of the virus, and all other hospitals in the Partners HealthCare network will require staff to wear face masks continuously while on site to help control the spread of the novel coronavirus, administrators said Sunday.
The policy requires medical workers, administrators, and support staff to wear masks in any building that provides patient care. It will affect Partners facilities such as Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Faulkner Hospital, Massachusetts Eye and Ear, McLean Hospital, Newton-Wellesley Hospital, and the Spaulding Rehabilitation Network.
“Our most precious resource is our workforce, and we have to have not just the nurses and physicians, but we have to have food service, and janitorial, and administrative, and all of our staff, because everyone is necessary to run a hospital,” said Dr. Paul Biddinger, chief of emergency preparedness for both MGH and Partners, in a phone interview Sunday.
Biddinger said the “unprecedented” policy was “based on our recognition that there is widespread community transmission of COVID-19, as well as our recognition that there is significant asymptomatic spread — in other words, COVID-19 can be spread by people who don’t feel ill at all.”
Partners requires staff members “with even minimal symptoms to stay out of work,” Biddinger said, but up to 20 percent of COVID-19 transmission occurs among patients without symptoms. Several health care workers at Mass. General have been exposed to COVID-19 and furloughed to self-quarantine at home after treating patients who came into the hospital for unrelated reasons but turned out to have the virus, he said.
“This mask policy helps protect our staff and helps prevent furloughs as well,” Biddinger said.
The network-wide mandate kicks in Wednesday, but it began Sunday at Mass. General, which had 20 COVID-19 positive patients by Sunday, with seven being treated in the intensive care unit. The hospital also had 93 patients awaiting test results, down from 117 patients on Saturday.
Citing “evidence of widespread transmission of COVID-19 in our community,” Mass. General officials said in an e-mail to staff early Sunday morning that both clinical and nonclinical staff will receive masks and be required to wear them “continuously, throughout their entire shift, while on the premises.”
And in a time of widespread shortages, they also instruct employees to “take and use only one mask per shift — unless the mask becomes visibly soiled or damaged,” according to the e-mail message obtained by the Globe.
Mass. General has staff “working almost around the clock trying to identify vendors and suppliers and opportunities” for purchasing masks, Biddinger said. “I would say we have cautious optimism that we will be able to sustain this strategy.”
Medical workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic are among those most at risk at a time when the nation’s health care system is taxed in unprecedented ways, and an alarming number have been infected.
In Boston, there have been at least nine staff members infected at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and 14 at Tufts Medical Center. Two Boston Medical Center employees have tested positive for the virus, as have two employees of UMass Memorial Health Care. That system’s largest hospital, UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, had 80 employees furloughed because of possible exposure to the virus, as of Sunday.
Tufts isn’t yet mandating the use of masks, a spokeswoman said Sunday, but encourages their use “for health care workers who have had an exposure, have symptoms, or are caring for a patient who requires enhanced droplet precautions.”
“Our top priority is maximizing the safety of all our patients and staff,” Rhonda Mann, the spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.
At Mass. General, hospital leaders are concerned about rising numbers of COVID-19 patients, and about the growing number of those patients who are critically ill, Biddinger said, but the facility has sufficient beds and staff, for now.
“We are seeing our case numbers increase on a similar curve to how others have around the world, with doubling in two, three-plus days, and while it is already a significant challenge, we still have some capacity,” he said. “But we are concerned for the increasing rise of cases for all hospitals that threatens to challenge our capacity.”
Mass. General is able to double its standard number of intensive care beds from about 150 to nearly 300, he said, and it has “extraordinary plans in place to make more ventilators available, both by repurposing machines that can work in that capability or using anesthesia machines from the ORs out of the operating rooms in clinical care areas.”
“There are hundreds of people, just at my hospital alone, and the same is true of hospitals all around Massachusetts, that are working seven days a week — very, very long days — to make sure that we can deliver safe health care to the patients that need it, and that we can protect our workforce,” Biddinger said.
“Those two things are by far our top priority, and the amount of work that is going into trying to make sure we do that is nothing I could have even imagined as a professional disaster planner."