COVID-19 outbreaks are increasing within Virginia’s hospitals, health officials warn

COVID-19 outbreaks are increasing within Virginia’s hospitals, health officials warn
Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver, flanked by Gov. Ralph Northam, left, also a doctor, and Secretary of Health Dr, Daniel Carey, right, spoke at a news conference on Capitol Square in March. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

One of Virginia’s top health officials is warning medical providers about a growing number of COVID-19 outbreaks in state hospitals.

Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver released a new clinician letter on Friday, writing that reported COVID-19 infections in hospitals have “increased substantially” since August.

“The largest monthly number of hospital COVID-19 outbreaks since the pandemic began was reported in October,” he said. Data from the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry, obtained by the Mercury through a Freedom of Information Act request, shows that more than 10 different hospitals reported COVID-19 cases or hospitalizations among employees between August and October.

Some of those facilities, including Bon Secours St. Mary’s Hospital in Richmond and Sovah Health in Martinsville, were also the subject of employee complaints about not following the state’s emergency COVID-19 safety regulations. Dozens of private health care practices — including dental offices, ear, nose and throat specialists, and eye doctors — also reported cases or received complaints.

Sarah Lineberger, manager of the Virginia Department of Health’s healthcare-associated infections program, said COVID fatigue is likely contributing to the spread in hospitals and health care facilities, which have been on the frontline of the pandemic for months.

“With the increase in community transmission, we think we just really have to get to the basics of infection prevention and control,” she said. “We’re seeing issues with personal protective equipment and the need to remind staff to make sure everyone is social distancing and following public health guidelines before and after work.”

The fact that many hospital employees were furloughed over the spring and summer and are still getting reacquainted with COVID-19 procedures also complicated efforts to control the virus, Lineberger said. Some hospitals have also relaxed visitor restrictions or may still be operating under emergency protocols when it comes to distributing personal protective equipment.

“Our messaging right now is that if a facility’s supply chain has evened out, we should be going back to normal PPE use,” she said. “Not this emergency use, where there’s been reuse of PPE or really extended use.”

The rise in hospital-related COVID-19 infections — which in some cases were specifically identified as work-related transmissions, according to DOLI data — has led some facilities to take additional precautions. Dr. William Petri, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Virginia, said the UVA health system recently decided to implement universal testing for all admitted patients after one came in with no coronavirus symptoms but later tested positive, exposing several health care workers and forcing them to quarantine.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.