Elise Amendola/AP Photo
Nurses walk through a maternity ward at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Some D.C. nurses and healthcare staff say there are not being tested for coronavirus after coming in contact with patients who register positive.
Elise Amendola/AP Photo
Nurses and other frontline healthcare staff say they are not being tested for COVID-19, putting them at risk for infection, according to the D.C. Nurses Association (DCNA). The association represents 2,000 nurses and healthcare professionals in the District.
"A patient at United Medical Center in southeast D.C. has died from COVID-19, and another patient at [Saint Elizabeths] Hospital tested positive for the virus. In both cases, D.C. Health refused to test the nurses and other hospital staff who cared for the patients," the DCNA said in a statement. It added that a nurse at Howard University Hospital died of the coronavirus, although that report could not be confirmed.
Not all healthcare workers, even those believed to have been exposed to COVID-19, qualify for testing under current guidelines. Edward Smith, executive director of the nurses' association, said guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control place healthcare workers in the top priority category only if they show symptoms. This guidance remains in place, despite the CDC's findings that as many as one in four coronavirus patients do not show symptoms.
"Some hospitals are quarantining the nurse for up to 14 days, and if they have symptoms then they will test them, but some hospitals are also not quarantining a nurse who has been exposed," Smith said. "We think the Mayor needs to take a much more aggressive approach in testing. We think if you've been exposed you need to be tested in the first 14 days. And you should actually be tested a number of times."
The D.C. Department of Health did not reply to WAMU's questions.
The D.C. Nurses Association says frontline healthcare workers are putting their lives on the line.
Toya Carmichael, a spokeswoman for the District-run United Medical Center, said nurses who were in contact with the patient and had symptoms were offered a test. Those without symptoms were directed to quarantine, she said. She added that she is in contact with the DCNA and is working to ensure the protection of the nurses against infection.
The tight controls around testing stem from a shortage of testing kits around the D.C. area, which mirrors a scarcity nationwide.
The Virginia Department of Health also reserves its tests for healthcare workers who show symptoms, including fever or a respiratory illness. The Maryland Department of Health uses similar criteria to prioritize testing for healthcare workers.
Smith said not testing all nurses who were exposed placed them at risk, and it also could lead to the spread of disease around the District.
"There's going to be more people that pass away because they will be exposed to the virus," he said. "If I don't get tested shortly after an exposure, there is an increased likelihood that I can expose somebody else, including a patient, including a coworker, including my family, including a stranger who might not be socially distancing on my way home."