Hospital workers cope with virus, furloughs

COVID-19 infections continue to climb, while 2,000 Kaleida and Catholic Health workers slated for month-long furloughs

Nurses and other employees at local hospitals are facing a double whammy these days: furloughs and increasing COVID-19 infections.

An investigative Post survey of a dozen hospitals, including those run by Kaleida Health and Catholic Health, finds that infections among their staffs have doubled in the past two weeks. The count also includes Erie County Medical Center and Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center. 

The updated total stands at 356, double that of two weeks ago. About a dozen employees a day are testing positive, a number that hasn’t fluctuated much in recent weeks.

The good news: nearly two-thirds of those infected have returned to work. 

Better still: no one has died.

Meanwhile, about 2,000 employees at the region’s largest health-care providers will find themselves out of work shortly for at least a month. 

A Kaleida spokesman told Investigative Post on Friday that about 800 employees have accepted a voluntary unpaid furlough. Catholic Health on Thursday announced mandatory unpaid furloughs for 1,200 workers. Those furloughed are eligible for unemployment insurance.

Kaleida Health, the region’s largest health-care provider, has tested a far greater percentage of its workers than the region’s other hospital systems. Kaleida, which operates five hospitals in the region, has tested 963 of its roughly 10,000 employees — nearly 10 percent — with 153 testing positive.  

About two-thirds of Kaleida employees diagnosed with COVID-19 have recovered and returned to work, according to hospital spokesman Michael Hughes.

Catholic Health, second in size to Kaleida, also operates five hospitals, including the St. Joseph’s campus in Cheektowaga, which is committed exclusively to treating COVID-9 patients. 

Catholic Health has tested 472, or about 5 percent, of its employees. 

“Keep in mind, we are only testing symptomatic individuals,” Catholic Health spokeswoman JoAnn Cavanaugh told Investigative Post in an email.

Of those, 158 tested positive for the disease – a few moe than Kaleida. And 118, or 74 percent, have been cleared to return to work.

“The remaining have either tested positive in the last 14 days or have not been cleared to return to work by their primary care physician due to a non-COVID related medical reason,” Cavanaugh said.

ECMC reports 46 employees have been diagnosed with COVID-19, out of 212 tested. ECMC employs about 4,000 people, according to spokesman Peter Cutler, which means the hospital has tested about 5 percent of its staff.

Of the 46 ECMC employees infected, Cutler said, 25 have recovered and returned to work.

Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center reports nine employees infected, out of 31 tested, with one employee awaiting the results of a test and one test inconclusive. The medical center employs 1,250 people, meaning the hospital has tested about 2.5 percent of its staff.

Six of the nine Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center employees who tested positive have recovered and returned to work.

The rate of health-care workers recovering from COVID-19 and returning to the front lines ranges from 54 percent at ECMC to 74 percent at Catholic Health, and averages out to about 65 percent. 

According to Pat Bradley, spokesperson for the Niagara Falls hospital, that rate of recovery and return indicates the similarity of protective regimens across the region’s hospital systems.

“We’re all exercising the same precautions, the same protocols,” Bradley said, describing the screening of hospital employees for symptoms as they arrive at work and during their shifts.

On Tuesday, Kaleida — which is hemorrhaging as much as $30 million per month during this pandemic — announced it would ask hundreds of employees to take voluntary, month-long furloughs

On Thursday, Catholic Health announced it would impose month-long furloughs on 1,200 of its workers. Catholic Health estimated its losses at $45 million per month.

According to Hughes, about 800 Kaleida employees had opted into the furlough program as of Friday morning. He expected the number to rise before the furloughs begin on Sunday.

Both systems indicated the furloughs would not diminish staff dedicated to COVID-19 patients. Rather, the reductions in staff would reflect the freeze on most other hospital activities, including lucrative elective surgeries and outpatient procedures. That freeze, in place since the middle of March, has wreaked havoc on hospital finances.

Neither Kaleida nor Catholic Health could say with certainty how the furlough programs would apply to employees who tested positive, recovered and returned to work, now armed with antibodies immunizing them against the disease. 

“We are still working through the furloughs,” Cavanaugh, of Catholic Health, said.