CORONAVIRUS

More than 60 University of Iowa hospital workers have tested positive for coronavirus

Numbers based on self-reports

The Pappajohn Pavilion at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics is shown in Iowa City. (The Gazette)
The Pappajohn Pavilion at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics is shown in Iowa City. (The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — More than 60 University of Iowa Health Care employees have tested positive for COVID-19, though hospital administrators believe “there has been no failure” in the use of protective gear.

“When our employees have worn (personal protective equipment) with known COVID-positive patients, we are not aware of any transmission,” UI Hospitals and Clinics Chief Executive Officer Suresh Gunasekeran told The Gazette.

Because tracking the virus and its transmission is so challenging, however, Gunasekaran conceded administrators don’t know for sure how or where the 64 infected employees were exposed.

“It’s been so prevalent in different parts of the community that we’re just unclear,” he said.

And, as is the situation nationally because of health privacy laws, UIHC knows if one of its workers tests positive for COVID-19 only if he or she tells a superior.

“We think the majority of employees have been telling us,” Gunasekaran said.

UIHC-issued guidance directs employees to notify supervisors if they even undergo a COVID-19 test, regardless of its outcome. Employees who test positive should not only tell a supervisor but call a UIHC Employee Health Center and stay home and isolate, the guidance advises.

Employees who have tested positive also are asked to call the center before returning to work.

Of the 64 UIHC employees who have been infected so far, four tested positive Thursday. In communicating those figures to their workforce Friday, administrators noted federal guidance prioritizes health care workers for testing.

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“For that reason, the population tested for COVID at UI Health Care represents a larger proportion of (health care workers) compared to the community population,” according to the administrative message, which reports UIHC has about 15,000 employees.

Administrators two weeks ago told the Board of Regents more than 20 UIHC employees had been infected with COVID-19 — and none were thought to have contracted it from a patient.

The campus as of Thursday was treating 25 COVID-19 inpatients, including two under age 18. To date, the campus has cared for 71 total COVID-19 inpatients, including four under age 18.

Gunasekaran told The Gazette the loss of sickened employees has not affected the ability to adequately meet patient needs and demands.

“It hasn’t yet,” he said, noting the percentage of staff who have come down with the virus is small. “And that’s been over the course of a month. So we’ve been able to handle it pretty well.”

Reassigning work

To minimize coronavirus spread, UIHC — like other businesses and institutions — has allowed and encouraged many of its employees to work remotely if possible.

“Easily one quarter of our staff is working from home, maybe even slightly more than a quarter of our staff is working from home,” he said. “So it’s a pretty significant number.”

Because UIHC is on the front lines of Iowa’s fight against COVID-19, however, many are needed on campus.

“We have a lot of folks that just need to come in, because the job is here,” Gunasekaran said.

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But while some roles and hospital operations have ramped up in response to the coronavirus, many departments and clinics have canceled elective procedures and visits — significantly slowing the workload.

And, in a message Thursday to UIHC staff, Gunasekaran noted temporary reassignments are coming — with workers asked to either volunteer or be assigned.

“During times of emergency operations, it is important that we have timely staffing of new mission critical functions,” according to the message. “Starting today, some UI Health Care staff will be temporarily reassigned to fill these emergency operations needs.”

The reassignments come after administrators earlier asked for volunteers to take on additional shifts and fill critical roles.

“We are now in a more systematic reassignment process of staff,” Gunasekaran said in the message. “If we do not have enough employees who voluntarily accept a temporary reassignment, we will select employees based on their university seniority date (with least senior being selected first).”

Reassignment, he explained, is defined as a schedule change of two or more hours — like reporting at 5 a.m. rather than 7 a.m., for example.

“The goal is to make every effort to maintain the work hours, schedule preferences, and location of employees who are reassigned,” he said. “However, it may not always be possible to do so, given the 24/7 nature of patient care and the fluidity of the current crisis.”

Reassignment will come with appropriate reimbursement, he said. And workers will be eligible for financial recognition — like through “spot awards.” Employees can earn up to eight awards a year, or up to $300 per award.

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.