An epidemiologist answers the biggest questions she’s getting about coronavirus.
More than 1,300 health care workers in Ohio have tested positive for the novel coronavirus since the pandemic began, accounting for about 1 of every 5 positive tests in the state.
But Ohio’s public health officials aren’t talking about where all those employees work, how they’re doing now or how many may have been infected in “hot spots,” or clusters of positive tests.
State and local health departments, the Ohio Hospital Association, the Health Collaborative of Greater Cincinnati and the hospitals themselves all have refused to provide details beyond a statewide total.
The reason? Most say revealing more information could jeopardize the privacy of infected employees.
They say more specific numbers for hospitals, or even for entire cities or counties, could allow someone to figure out who got sick, thereby violating the workers’ privacy rights.
“It is possible to piece together information … to possibly identify an individual,” said Melanie Amato, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Health.
It’s true some hospitals and counties are small, but most of Ohio’s health care workers and most cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, are in larger metro areas. Hamilton County is alone home to more than 800,000 people, including tens of thousands of health care workers.
An Enquirer analysis of Friday’s statewide data shows 68% of the 5,878 Ohioans who have tested positive or are presumed positive are from just 10 counties – all 10 with at least 200,000 residents. Those same counties held 67% of the 1,755 patients hospitalized with COVID-19.
Not everyone thinks the secrecy is a good idea. Shortages of protective equipment and tests, along with the daily challenges of coping with a pandemic, mean health care workers are at significant risk every time they go to work.
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More information about what’s happening in those workplaces, some say, could identify locations that need additional help and resources protecting the people who work there.
“From a health care worker perspective, I think those numbers can be beneficial,” said Michelle Thoman, president of the Registered Nurses Association at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. “If you see that numbers in your facility or hospital are climbing, you can be prepared for that.”
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Thoman said the information wouldn’t scare off nurses and other hospital employees, because they already know the risks and are doing their jobs anyway.
Thoman, a nurse in a medical surgery unit, recently was quarantined after a potential exposure to the virus. Her test was negative and she’s back at work now, but it’s unknown whether other workers at the hospital have tested positive because hospital officials won’t say.
Most major hospitals in Greater Cincinnati have confirmed positive tests among employees and are reporting those to the state. But neither the hospitals nor state officials will say anything more about their numbers.
They do, however, say they are following state and federal guidelines to keep their employees safe. “Hospitals are taking every precaution,” said Christa Hyson, spokeswoman for the Health Collaborative, a 30-hospital planning consortium for the Cincinnati region. “If you have any symptoms, you are immediately sent home.”
Kentucky also does not provide details about health worker infections, but sometimes isolated outbreaks become public. This week, nine labor and delivery nurses at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Edgewood, Kentucky, tested positive.
Incidents like that raise questions for some about what’s being lost when rank-and-file employees – and the public at large – aren’t given more information.
A 44-year-old Texas woman spent 10 days on a ventilator at St. David’s South Austin Medical Center and was met with a standing ovation as she finally headed home.
Health care workers understand conditions aren’t ideal and that everyone, including hospital executives, are struggling to keep ahead of the pandemic, said Deborah Arms, president of the Ohio Nurses Association. But she said more openness about the scope of the problem would help, not hurt.
“I do think it would be beneficial to know that information, simply so we can identify hot spots,” Arms said. “We believe there needs to be more transparency.”
Dr. Amy Acton, director of Ohio’s Department of Health, said Thursday that state officials are using the reports on worker infections to protect both the workers and the patients they serve, even if those numbers aren’t made public. She said the continuing shortage of tests makes it difficult to gauge the scope of the problem statewide and among health workers.
“We’ve been keeping track,” she said. “We know it’s probably the tip of the iceberg, even among health care workers.”
When asked about providing more detail about the number of infected health care workers, Acton said she’d look into it.
Contributing: Jessie Balmert, Cincinnati Enquirer. Follow Dan Horn and Terry DeMio on Twitter: @danhornnews @tdemio
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