Health care workers accounted for nearly one in five of the confirmed coronavirus cases in Bexar County, according to Metro Health data covering the past eight weeks.
More than 320 people who work in San Antonio-area health care facilities have contracted the highly contagious coronavirus, the city statistics show. City spokeswoman Laura Mayes said some of the health care workers’ infections are linked to the outbreak in late March at the Southeast Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
Nearly all of the facility’s residents were infected and 18 died, and 29 employees tested positive for the virus.
At University Health System, which operates the publicly funded University Hospital, at least 60 employees have tested positive for the virus since March, said spokeswoman Leni Kirkman. Most have recovered. The remaining are convalescing at home.
UHS’s workforce totals 8,000, which includes everyone from janitors to administrators.
The South Texas Veterans Health Care System, which includes Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans’ Hospital, said 14 employees had tested positive as of May 5. Most have returned to work.
The regional Veterans Administration network employs a total of 4,300 workers.
The coronavirus has infected at least 1.2 million people in the U.S., resulting in 76,032 deaths since January. In Bexar County, officials have reported 1,805 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Thursday, and 54 deaths from the disease.
Health care personnel — doctors, nurses, medical technicians and others — are among the most at risk of catching the coronavirus.
“Certainly medical personnel, whether in offices, hospitals or nursing homes, wherever they are, are going to be at increased risk because they are seeing people who are more likely to have the disease,” said Dr. David Fleeger, an Austin surgeon and president of Texas Medical Association.
In mid-April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
estimated that between Feb. 12 and April 9, more than 9,200 U.S. health care workers were sickened by the coronavirus, and at least 27 of them died. The CDC data showed that 73 percent of the personnel getting sick were women with a median age of 42.
CDC officials said the numbers probably understate the infection level, and urged more surveillance to better understand the risks of the pandemic to health care workers.
“When it comes to our health care workers, they are our most valuable resource in stopping the spread of COVID-19. We are doing everything we can to protect them,” said a spokesman for the Chicago-based American Hospital Association. “At the top of that list is making sure they have the personal protective equipment that keeps them safe, and gives them peace of mind.”
In the early weeks of the pandemic, San Antonio health care workers — like their counterparts around the world — experienced shortages of masks, goggles, gowns and gloves. Many hospitals and clinics rationed medical supplies, preparing for a surge of infected patients that largely failed to materialize locally.
In the midst of the crisis, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health issued guidelines directing workers to re-use N95 respirator masks to conserve supplies. Those are tightly-fitting masks designed to filter out 95 percent of airborne particles.
Manufacturers often label N95 respirators for “single-use only,” said Lisa Campbell, a San Antonio-based public health nurse with a doctorate in nursing practice.
In late March, Texas Nurses Association said its members were told to re-use masks for up to seven days or until they were visibly soiled. “We’re hearing recommendations we never thought we’d hear,” Campbell said in a March 24 interview.
Hospital officials have devised ways to improve the safety of masks.
University Hospital developed a method for sterilizing its N95 masks using a hydrogen peroxide process, which allowed a mask to be used four times. Methodist Healthcare System uses UV light to disinfect its N95 masks so that they can be reused up to five times.
Metro Health says risks to hospital workers have been reduced because proper protective gear is more readily available than it was early in the crisis.
The public health agency has tracked local cases since March 13, but officials said details about the positions held by affected health care workers are not available.
Mayes, the city spokesperson, said 18 percent of Bexar County cases are people who work in health care settings. More than half have recovered, and none have died.
It’s unclear from the Metro Health data whether the infected employees worked in close proximity to COVID-19 patients.
“A maintenance worker or loading dock worker is not clinical but we couldn’t see patients without them,” UHS’s Kirkman said, Anyone working inside their building, she added, is considered an essential health care worker — not just doctors and nurses.
The county hospital system relies on housekeeping, billing and other office staff, as well as lab techs, scientists, therapists and social workers to keep the hospital running.
Health care practitioners and technical support staff made up 6.3 percent of the San Antonio area’s total employment as of May 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
While some businesses are starting to reopen across the city, UHS has ramped up its safety protocols and continues to severely limit visitors on its campus.
The system’s safety measures include mandatory screening at every building’s entrance, banning in-person meetings of more than two people and strictly enforced social distancing, with tape on the floors to mark spacing.
Staff members also have a designated hotline to immediately speak to a medical provider if they have symptoms, Kirkman said.
If they are sent to be tested, they go to a dedicated lane at the drive-thru testing site at Freeman Coliseum. Results come back the next day.