About 30 to 40 employees at Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen have tested positive for COVID-19, forcing the hospital to transfer some patients and divert ambulances to other emergency rooms, according to a union official and a hospital executive.
Most of the employees are nurses from two units, including the progressive care unit, where patients require significant attention, said Debbie White, president of the Health Professionals & Allied Employees union.
“We had two of our members die at Palisades in the spring, so it’s extremely troublesome,” White said.
Mary Jo Layton, a spokeswoman for the hospital’s parent company, Hackensack Meridian Health, said Palisades still has adequate staffing and patient care has not suffered. Layton did not say how many Palisades employees have tested positive — only that less than 1.5% of the entire system’s clinical workforce was out sick.
The outbreak at the 202-bed facility on the Hudson River led management to transfer some patients to Pascack Valley Medical Center in Westwood or to Hackensack University Medical Center, said Dr. Daniel Varga, the chief physician executive of Hackensack Meridian Health, the system that owns Palisades.
Emergency dispatchers have been told several times in recent days to divert ambulances to other hospitals. These requests have come in four-hour blocks to make sure the Palisades emergency department is not overwhelmed.
On Wednesday morning, a group of patients were waiting to be discharged from Palisades while others were waiting in the emergency department to be admitted. A diversion allowed the hospital to get back to normal, Varga said.
Palisades — along with Ocean Medical Center in Brick, where 100 staffers have tested positive — also delayed certain elective surgeries for two to three days, Varga said.
“This is nothing out of the ordinary for the way we manage any level of high capacity,” such as a heavy flu season in previous years, he said.
Varga said all 14 of Hackensack Meridian’s hospitals have had staff members fall ill with COVID-19 during the second surge, which began last month in New Jersey. The number of staff out sick has dropped “a couple hundred” from its peak at over 1,000 systemwide on Monday, he said.
“We’re trying to make sure we have staff in place everywhere,” he said.
Varga said staff is becoming infected outside of work and bringing the virus into hospitals. He said he has confidence prevention measures have reduced the risk to staff. They include a robust stock of masks, face shields, gowns and other personal protective equipment at Palisades and other network hospitals.
“There’s so much community spread, we are all vulnerable,” he said.
But White said there is no proof that her members are getting sick outside of work. A workers’ compensation law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy says any essential worker who contracts COVID-19 is presumed to have contracted it at a workplace.
“This is one of a number of facilities in that system that has had an outbreak, so maybe it’s the hospitals that aren’t protecting its workforce,” White said.
Two Palisades staffers died from COVID-19 in the spring: Nancy Martell, a patient care technician, and Alfredo Pabatao, who transported patients.
The Harborage, a 247-bed nursing home connected to the hospital, was cited by OSHA inspectors for failing to give its nursing staff the proper masks to treat COVID-19 residents near the height of the pandemic’s first wave, in the spring. Executives said they would contest the five violations, which totaled $28,000 in fines. At least 25 Harborage residents died from coronavirus complications.
Layton said all of the system’s hospitals have taken steps to contain COVID-19’s spread, which hospitalized 3,287 statewide on Wednesday, including 599 in critical care. Among the steps:
- Suspending visitation with hospitalized patients except for births, end-of-life care, pediatrics and adult patients with special needs.
- “Serial testing” any patient who stays for more than two days.
- Conducting contact tracing, so that if a staffer comes in contact with another staffer who is positive, they, too, must self-quarantine.
Scott Fallon covers the environment for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news about how New Jersey’s environment affects your health and well-being, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.