NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - A state legislator alleges the lack of direct protocols from the state regarding hospitals is putting North Carolinians at risk of the novel coronavirus.
In a letter to N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen, State Rep. Jimmy Dixon (R-Duplin/Onslow) details a “cluster outbreak” of COVID-19 cases at New Hanover Regional Medical Center.
Dixon was recently named to the state House Committee on Health, a position he said he asked Speaker Tim Moore (R) for after seeing the dramatic rise of virus cases in his home Duplin County.
“I have sent numerous emails to you over the past several months asking questions about COVID-19 and imploring you to have DHHS make clear, cogent directives to protect the people of this state,” Dixon begins in his letter to Cohen.
He then goes on to detail information he received regarding NHRMC—claiming that at least 40 staff members at the hospital have tested positive for COVID-19, with up to 10 of them allegedly working in the anesthesia department.
Dr. Philip Brown, executive vice president and chief physician executive at NHRMC, confirmed there have been cases of the virus among employees, but said they have been spread across multiple departments.
Of the 7,500 people who are hospital employees, 0.5 percent have tested positive—meaning about 38—so Dixon’s information on the total number was close, said Brown.
“That is one of the best performances of any hospital in the state,” Brown said.
He added, however, that the hospital has no evidence that there has been transmission of COVID-19 between patients and care providers, and said that points to the likelihood employees who have caught the virus did so out in the community.
“That’s why we have redoubled our efforts with our staff to say not only do we need to continue the very rigorous PPE (personal protective equipment) practices that we have in the hospital, but we’re imploring our staff to demonstrate for the community what it means to use PPE appropriately in public, particularly masks,” he said.
While he referenced NHRMC, due to its wide reach and proximity to his home county, Dixon said his main concern was not with NHRMC, but with the state for not requiring that patients be tested for COVID-19 before going into surgery.
“I cannot imagine what it would be like to have a wife or a husband or a medical worker that was working and performing their duties in an operating room not knowing whether the patient they were operating on had COVID-19,” the state representative said in a phone interview Friday morning.
Dixon also reiterated his concerns about personal protective equipment at hospitals, especially in the operating room where anesthesia equipment and methods cause an increase in respiratory droplet production of potentially positive patients.
“If there’s anything that we need assurance of, it is that that operating room is as safe as possible,” he said.
Brown said they are evaluating their policies about testing patients before surgery.
Before an elective or non-time-urgent procedure, Brown said, patients are instructed to self isolate at home for 14 days.
In limited testing they’ve done of these patients, Brown said they haven’t had any test positive.
Additionally, he said the hospital has been tracking patients after surgery and doing some testing, finding no cases.
Dixon also thinks hospitals should be required to disclose if they have a virus outbreak among staff in the same way nursing homes are now required to, not just for the staff themselves, but for the public at large.
“If our doctors and nurses...if they get sick, how are they going to take care of us?” Dixon said.
The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) responded Friday to an inquiry by WECT about the letter, confirming it was received.
Spokesperson Kelly Haight Connor said the agency works closely with hospitals
State mandate or not, NHRMC took a step Friday to increase transparency after WECT reached out regarding Dixon’s letter and questions from the community—they will now give regular updates on the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients, deaths from the virus, patient discharges and the percentage of hospital staff who have tested positive.
“I think it’s important for the community to be able to see that we’re actually dealing with a lethal problem that is increasing,” Brown said. “We really just wanted to be transparent as far as what you’re seeing in your hospital.”
As of Friday, June 26:
- 151 people have been hospitalized at NHRMC for COVID-19
- 24 patients have died of the virus
- 98 patients have recovered and been discharged
- The average hospitalization at NHRMC for the week of June 22-26 was 28 patients per day
- 0.5 percent of staff (approximately 38 people) have tested positive
Brown said the hospital feels comfortable sharing the numbers now that the number of patients is high enough that individuals cannot be identified.
The hospital also clarified its policies and procedures when it comes to testing patients before surgery, and what is done if a staff member does test positive.
A spokesperson sent the following:
“Patient safety is paramount in everything we do. NHRMC requires all staff and anyone coming to NHRMC facilities to wear masks in clinical or hospital settings. Clinical staff members wear appropriate personal protective equipment for the circumstances to protect both themselves and patients.
Additionally, all NHRMC staff members are required to screen themselves daily for any COVID-19 symptoms and report any concerns to Employee Health for evaluation. All symptomatic and/or positive employees are excluded from work adhering to all CDC guidelines.”