23 employees, 13 patients in non-COVID-19 unit infected with coronavirus at Massachusetts hospital

A COVID-19 outbreak at a Massachusetts hospital has infected 13 patients and 23 hospital employees, according to a Monday news release by Dr. Mark Keroack, president and CEO of Baystate Health.

Baystate Health discovered several patients and employees in a non-COVID-19 clinical unit had tested positive for the novel coronavirus last week. Hospital officials have contacted any other people who received care in the affected unit during the period between July 15-23, the news release stated.

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The hospital conducted testing and contact tracing of employees who worked in the unit regularly, as well as of employees who might have spent more than 15 minutes within the unit during the same time period.

As of July 27, the hospital was able to confirm that a total of 36 people were infected with COVID-19.

“Based on our extensive review by our hospital epidemiologists, we believe the group of cases on the unit resulted from several factors,” according to Keroack. “We know that an employee traveled to an area within the United States that has been identified as a ‘hot spot,’ and upon return was diagnosed with the virus. In addition, we know staff convened in breakrooms and removed their masks without observing proper social distancing protocols. These simple lapses were able to happen in spite of our screening employees for fever and other symptoms before every shift, mandating mask usage and social distancing throughout the facility.”

Keroack said that while the facility is taking precautions to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus to their non-COVID-19 patients, the high transmissibility of the virus presents a risk.

“We know there is no guarantee that this virus cannot spread even when precautions are taken. Asymptomatic people may shed the virus, and those who feel they are somehow in an area without virus may let their guard down from time to time, with serious consequences. We have seen this in too many areas throughout the country,” Keroack continued. “This event reinforces that COVID-19 is highly contagious and requires vigilance in order to contain its spread.”

“We are deeply disappointed that this outbreak occurred, and we are committed to an ongoing review of our safety practices to ensure they are aligned with current guidelines and science. We remain committed to high quality safe care and environments, and to transparency with all in our community who count on us each and every day,” Keroack added.

The hospital will continue to follow guidelines on hand washing and requiring face coverings, Keroack said, and the facility has also introduced a new policy that aligns with the state’s new travel restrictions that go into effect on Aug. 1.

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All visitors from out of state must fill out the travel form available on the government website prior to visiting and must quarantine for 14 days or produce a negative COVID-19 test result that has been administered up to 72 hours prior arriving in Massachusetts. Failure to follow the instructions could result in a $500 fine per day, according to the state’s travel restrictions guidelines.

“Our culture of safety is our number one priority and we continually encourage our employees and managers to speak up in real time to correct any issue. We also have a confidential hot line for them to do so. We also have introduced a new policy in alignment with Massachusetts travel restrictions that will take effect on August 1,” Keroack said. “This complements our existing ban on corporate travel and meetings, and it requires quarantine for any employee returning from a hot spot. We applaud Governor Baker’s new travel restrictions for all visitors coming from those hot spots.”

Massachusetts had a total of 108,562 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of July 27 and 8,317 deaths, according to the state health department’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Keroack encouraged the public to remain vigilant.

“The virus will remain a real threat for many more months, and we must stay focused on taking appropriate precautions to prevent future instances of its reintroduction and spread,” he said.