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15 LHSC physicians and staff have COVID-19, internal memo shows 55 more under investigation

Health officials say 34 cases have been linked to the outbreak, including  16 among staff and 18 among patients.
Health officials say 34 cases have been linked to the outbreak, including 16 among staff and 18 among patients. Matthew Trevithick / Global News

London Health Sciences Centre president and CEO Dr. Paul Woods is urging employees to hold themselves to “a higher standard” after more than a dozen physicians and staff tested positive for COVID-19 and dozens more are “under investigation and/or awaiting test results.”

In an internal email obtained by Global News, Woods says “as of Monday, LHSC had 14 staff/physicians who were off work having tested positive, with 55 under investigation and/or awaiting test results.”

Read more: Coronavirus: 23 new cases in London-Middlesex; 9 cases in Elgin-Oxford

According to public data, the number of impacted staff and physicians grew to 15 as of Thursday. It’s unclear if the number of those under investigation and/or awaiting test results has changed.

“In many of these cases, internal contact tracing has shown the spread to be caused by direct staff-to-staff transmission,” Woods wrote.

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“To be clear: this is unacceptable, considering the infection control safety protocols and procedures LHSC has put in place over the past eight months.”

Woods goes on to mention that the hospital network has had ongoing issues with staff taking off masks to eat together and failing to practice proper physical distancing, both outside and inside, and that low community transmission in the summer meant lower inpatient numbers, which “likely led to a sense of perceived increased safety.”

Read more: Health experts push for ‘aggressive’ strategy called #COVIDZero to stamp out coronavirus

“This week’s numbers of staff and inpatient cases, coupled with a sharp and alarming increase in community transmission, must serve as our wake-up call,” he wrote.

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“I have said this many times over the course of the pandemic but given our current situation it bears repeating: as health-care workers we must set ourselves to a higher standard when it comes to living and modeling public health guidelines both inside and outside our workplace.”

Woods also notes that “willfully choosing not to adhere” to safety practices at work could result in disciplinary action, “up to and including termination.”

An employee who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of losing their job told Global News, “LHSC has not provided staff with suitable places to take lunch or breaks, so we are often given no choice but to eat closer than 6 feet apart.”

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They went on to say that they were disappointed by that email sent to staff because they have been asking since the pandemic started for more space.

LHSC did not respond to Global’s request for comment on the employee’s statement.

According to LHSC, two COVID-19 outbreaks are currently active within its hospitals, both at University Hospital. The outbreaks are in the facility’s 4IP General Medicine, declared Nov. 10, and 9IP Orthopedics units, declared Nov. 11.

It’s unclear how many people have tested positive as a result of the outbreaks as such information has not been made public by LHSC or the health unit.

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Asked about the number of staff confirmed to have COVID-19 and the number of staff under investigation for it, Middlesex-London Health Unit medical officer of health Dr. Chris Mackie attempted to reassure the public on Thursday, stating that LHSC has “an excellent occupational health and safety team” and “they’re real leaders in terms of infection prevention and control.”

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“When you see folks testing positive there, you can be sure that the hospital is taking that very seriously and putting measures in place to control any potential spread,” Mackie said.

As for the 55 staff under investigation, Mackie says it shows contact tracing is working.

“‘Under investigation’ likely means that either those folks have had close contact with positive cases or they have symptoms and are being tested,” he said.

“Those people would be in isolation regardless of whether they’re close contacts or they have symptoms. So, again, for people who are going to be patients at LHSC, we’re talking about a very low level of risk.”

Read more: Ontario hits ‘critical’ 150 COVID-19 patients in ICU, may result in cancelled surgeries

Public data from LHSC also shows a total of 11 inpatients with the virus are in its care as of Thursday, an increase of three from its update on Monday. LHSC does not say whether any patients are in intensive care.

Mackie noted that it’s “the highest that we’ve seen the hospitalization numbers since the beginning of the second wave.”

“In the first wave, as this moved through long-term care and in this region, to a lesser extent, retirement homes, you definitely saw high levels of hospitalizations and ICU use, which we haven’t reached at this point in London and Middlesex in the second wave.”

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Global News has reached out to LHSC for comment but had yet to receive a response by publication time.

— With files from Global News’ Matthew Trevithick