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Coronavirus outbreak at Portland VA hospital grows, illustrating risk to health workers

Of the 29 people who tested for COVID-19 at the hospital, 22 are staff and one is a medical trainee.

PORTLAND, Ore. — A growing coronavirus outbreak at the Portland VA medical center has hit hospital workers especially hard. Twenty-nine people have tested positive for COVID-19 at the VA hospital, most within the past week or so.

Six people are patients, but the bulk of the confirmed cases are hospital workers, including 22 staff and one medical trainee.

“What’s most concerning is how quickly it has spread,” said Dr. Chris Pfeifer, who leads the infection control team at VA Portland Health Care System.

Pfeifer theorizes the outbreak started on April 29 when a patient came into the hospital who wasn’t showing symptoms. Positive test results didn’t come back for 48 hours. During that time, doctors fear the patient unknowingly spread the virus to others.

“Pretty quickly. We said, 'Hey, there’s a problem here,'" Pfeifer said.

It is not clear if the virus was spread through the environment or was airborne.

“I think this is just more evidence that this virus is very tricky,” said Pfeifer. “It can spread in ways that we’re not entirely sure.”

The VA medical center is taking precautionary measures including infection control. The hospital’s eighth floor, where the outbreak likely started, has been closed for deep cleaning and sterilization. A UV robot is being used to kill coronavirus on surfaces. The sixth floor is closed to admissions. Patients that may have been exposed to the virus are isolated.

Additionally, the hospital is expanding testing for all patients and staff. Some people will be tested every three days or so.

“Testing has been the biggest flaw in this situation,” said Marcia Blaine, a nurse at the VA hospital and president of AFGE Local 2157.

Blaine believes testing should have been readily available to all hospital workers much earlier.

“Any employee should never be denied the ability to get tested when we have a communicable disease as rampant and dangerous as this one,” said Blaine.

The hospital’s emergency room has stopped accepting ambulances in response to the outbreak.

The Portland VA medical center said a recent visit by representatives from the Oregon Health Authority and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reinforced its infection control procedures and encouraged the hospital to stop reusing N95 masks.

The large percentage of staff infected at the VA highlights how health care workers are at high risk of infection.

“In Oregon, more than 16% of our confirmed coronavirus cases are health care workers,” said Kevin Mealy of the Oregon Nurses Association. “It’s an incredibly vulnerable population. You can’t listen to a heartbeat from six feet away.”

These front-line workers are not only at higher risk but can also amplify outbreaks within healthcare facilities if they become ill.

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