Tim Oswalt had been in a Fort Worth, Texas, hospital for over a month, receiving treatment for a grapefruit-sized tumor in his chest that was pressing on his heart and lungs. It turned out to be stage 3 non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Then one day in January, he was moved from his semi-private room to an isolated one with special ventilation. The staff explained he had been infected by the virus that was once again surging in many areas of the country, including Texas.
“How the hell did I catch COVID?” he asked the staff, who now approached him in full moon-suit personal protective equipment (PPE).
The hospital was locked down, and Mr. Oswalt hadn’t had any visitors in weeks. Neither of his two roommates tested positive. He’d been tested for COVID several times over the course of his nearly 5-week stay and was always negative.
“‘Well, you know, it’s easy to [catch it] in a hospital,’” Mr. Oswalt said he was told by hospital staff. “‘We’re having a bad outbreak. So you were just exposed somehow.’”
Officials at John Peter Smith Hospital, where Mr. Oswalt was treated, said they are puzzled by his case. According to their infection prevention team, none of his caregivers tested positive for COVID-19, nor did Mr. Oswalt share space with any other COVID-positive patients. And yet, local media reported a surge in cases among JPS hospital staff in December.
“Infection of any kind is a constant battle within hospitals and one that we all take seriously,” said Rob Stephenson, MD, chief quality officer at JPS Health Network. “Anyone in a vulnerable health condition at the height of the pandemic would have been at greater risk for contracting COVID-19 inside – or even more so, outside – the hospital.”
Mr. Oswalt was diagnosed with COVID in early January. JPS Hospital began vaccinating its health care workers about 2 weeks earlier, so there had not yet been enough time for any of them to develop full protection against catching or spreading the virus.
Today, the hospital said 74% of its staff – 5,300 of 7,200 workers – are now vaccinated.
against the SARS-CoV2 virus.
In fact, nationwide, 1 in 4 hospital workers who have direct contact with patients had not yet received a single dose of a COVID vaccine by the end of May, according to a WebMD and Medscape Medical News analysis of data collected by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from 2,500 hospitals across the United States.
Among the nation’s 50 largest hospitals, the percentage of unvaccinated health care workers appears to be even larger, about 1 in 3. Vaccination rates range from a high of 99% at Houston Methodist Hospital, which was the first in the nation to mandate the shots for its workers, to a low between 30% and 40% at some hospitals in Florida.
Memorial Hermann Texas Medical Center in Houston has 1,180 beds and sits less than half a mile from Houston Methodist Hospital. But in terms of worker vaccinations, it is farther away.
Memorial Hermann reported to HHS that about 32% of its 28,000 workers haven’t been inoculated. The hospital’s PR office contests that figure, putting it closer to 25% unvaccinated across their health system. The hospital said it is boosting participation by offering a $300 “shot of hope” bonus to workers who start their vaccination series by the end of June.
Lakeland Regional Medical Center in Lakeland, Fla., reported to HHS that 63% of its health care personnel are still unvaccinated. The hospital did not return a call to verify that number.
To boost vaccination rates, more hospitals are starting to require the shots, after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission gave its green light to mandates in May.
“It’s a real problem that you have such high levels of unvaccinated individuals in hospitals,” said Lawrence Gostin, JD, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, Washington.
“We have to protect our health workforce, and we have to protect our patients. Hospitals should be the safest places in the country, and the only way to make them safe is to have a fully vaccinated workforce,” Mr. Gostin said.