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Frontline hospital workers not screened for COVID-19 in Rhode Island

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – While some groups of people – ranging from college students to NFL football players – are regularly screened for the coronavirus, the same opportunity is not afforded to most frontline hospital workers in Rhode Island.

Target 12 has confirmed that doctors and nurses working in the state’s largest hospitals are not regularly tested for the coronavirus unless they are showing symptoms, a policy that’s been in place for months in part because of a continued shortage of testing materials.  

“All the health systems are strapped with availability of testing,” Care New England president and CEO Dr. James Fanale told Target 12. “We haven’t been able to screen asymptomatic people, as bizarre as that may sound.”

Hospital demand for testing is already high, as all incoming patients are often screened for the virus. But when it comes to purchasing testing materials, the hospitals are competing with other entities, such as colleges and universities, along with professional sports teams, which Fanale said can pay more than health care facilities for what limited testing supplies are out there.

“Obviously, the NFL is a rich enterprise,” Fanale said. “I’m not criticizing. It’s a statement of fact. There are only so many tests and if I were a business, I’m going to sell my test to the highest bidder.”

Beyond cost, there are other contributing factors behind the policy decision, including staffing problems, which has emerged as an increasingly difficult problem across the health care industry. Blanket testing of all hospital workers would likely result in a flurry of positive tests, forcing many out of work and leaving the much-needed health care system in a bind.

“The health care system needs employees to work,” explained said Dr. Otis Warren, Rhode Island president of the American College of Emergency Physicians.

“Personally, I would love to get tested asymptotically, but I understand that my personal needs and the needs of the health care system are not necessarily aligned,” he added.

Without the blind testing — sometimes referred to as surveillance testing — there are concerns an infected health care worker could transmit the virus to an uninfected patient. But Warren stressed that eight months into the pandemic has shown little evidence of widespread in-hospital transmissions.

Yet he conceded that this is something he and his colleagues “struggle with ethically as a group.”

“The practical point is that there’s very little chance that a physician, who is in a mask and practicing proper PPE when they contact a patient … would transmit the virus,” he said. “I can’t say it’s a 0% chance, but we have seen very little transmission of COVID within the hospitals once the patient is already admitted.”

Fanale points to inaction at the federal level as contributing to their inability to accumulate more testing materials, saying his hospital system – the second largest in the state – has about a week’s worth of tests on-hand at any given time.

“If we had two- or three-weeks of supplies, we would expand our testing and capabilities,” Fanale said. “That’s one of the Achille’s heel of this whole issue that needed to be addressed on the federal level months and months ago and it wasn’t.”

President-elect Joe Biden has promised to implement a more aggressive federal response strategy to the coronavirus pandemic, including a more robust testing regime. But President Donald Trump has yet to concede the election, stalling the transition of pertinent coronavirus-related information.

On Tuesday, the American Medical Association, American Hospital Association and American Nurses Association, called on Trump to share that information as soon as possible, claiming further delay could cost lives amid a new surge of the virus.

“Real-time data and information on the supply of therapeutics, testing supplies, personal protective equipment, ventilators, hospital bed capacity and workforce availability to plan for further deployment of the nation’s assets needs to be shared to save countless lives,” wrote the groups. “It is from this frontline human perspective that we urge you to share critical data and information as soon as possible.”

In Rhode Island, Warren – who has worked on the frontline since the beginning of the pandemic – said he’s thankful to have yet become sick, which he mostly attributes to the effectiveness of personal protective equipment.

But after more than eight months of fighting the illness, he’s honest about the toll the effort is taking on him and his colleagues across the industry.

“Every day going to work and seeing COVID patients, I look in their mouths, I touch them and occasionally put breathing tubes in their trachea,” he said. “Coming home from the hospital and re-entering the home – I’m fraught with anxiety and fear.”

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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