Coronavirus infections among employees at major hospitals in Massachusetts nearly tripled over the past week, intensifying alarm about workers’ health, potential spread to others, and the withdrawal of staff at such a critical time in the pandemic.
As of Wednesday, there were 509 infected workers at the hospitals, up from 177 the prior week, according to hospital data tracked by the Globe.
This comes as epidemiologists predict Massachusetts is about two weeks away from its peak demand on hospitals, and amid ongoing worries about shortages of masks and other personal protective equipment for health care workers.
In China and Italy, where the virus spread rapidly before reaching Massachusetts, large numbers of health care workers became infected.
“We are entering the most crucial period in this pandemic, and nurses are very concerned,” said Donna Kelly-Williams, president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, in a statement.
Williams also expressed concern that not every nurse who should be tested is getting one, and that current employee infection numbers could be understated.
Officials at the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association said hospitals are working to test every caregiver with symptoms of coronavirus.
“We are acutely aware of the unfortunate reality that, as we head into the anticipated surge of COVID-19 cases, more of our health care workers will test positive,” they said in a statement.
Officials at several hospitals have said that most of the workers who have tested positive for the virus appear to have been infected in the community — not from sick patients. Not all of the infected employees work directly with patients.
“We aren’t seeing clusters,” said Brooke Hynes, a spokeswoman for Tufts Medical Center’s parent company, Wellforce. “We still think a lot of it is coming from the community spread.”
The breakdown included 139 infected workers at Massachusetts General Hospital, compared to 41 the prior week; 125 at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, up from 45; 82 at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, up from 40; 65 at Boston Medical Center, up from 15; 66 at Tufts Medical Center, up from 31; and 32 at UMass Memorial Medical Center, up from five. The Beth Israel numbers were current as of Friday, while the others were current as of last Wednesday.
Employees at Partners HealthCare hospitals, which include Mass General and Brigham and Women’s, are required to wear masks at all times during their shifts. This should help to prevent hospital workers from unknowingly transmitting coronavirus to each other, or to their patients, said Dr. Charles Morris, associate chief medical officer at the Brigham.
Brigham officials investigate every employee infection, and for most, “we simply can’t tell where that person was infected,” Morris said.
Every employee who gets sick must miss work for several days to several weeks, depending on the severity of their symptoms. That’s a strain on hospitals that are desperately trying to maintain their workforce of caregivers amid the pandemic.
“While health care workers may be protected by PPE during the work day," Morris said, "we are all potentially bumping up against this virus in our daily lives.”
When they’re working with patients who may be contagious, hospital workers wear gowns, gloves, masks, and eye or face shields to protect themselves. But concerns about the shortage of protective equipment have been brewing for weeks. Many hospitals are requiring doctors and nurses to extend use of masks that they would normally discard after one use, and front-line care providers have expressed fears about treating patients without enough protective gear.
On Thursday, the Kraft family used a New England Patriots team plane to bring about 1 million N95 respirator masks from China to Massachusetts health care workers.
“The sharp increase in hospital employees diagnosed with COVID-19 is concerning, and our thoughts are with those who have been stricken," Dr. Maryanne C. Bombaugh, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said in a statement Thursday.
“The rapid surge in confirmed cases within hospitals underscores the dire need for personal protective equipment for all who are confronting this pandemic on the front lines,” she said, "and affirms that social distancing is an absolute must if we wish to protect each other and those who need to be healthy and strong to care for patients.”
Liz Kowalczyk of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.