Cancer center officials defend handling of virus
STEUBENVILLE — Tony Teramana Cancer Center officials Monday defended their handling of three employees who’d tested positive for COVID-19, saying their priority was to safeguard the health of their patients and staff, not answer to the media.
“We had to make decisions about how to protect patients and staff,” Dr. Mark Trombetta, medical director of cancer center, said after the question was raised several times during a conference call meant to ease community concerns. “Our first (priority) isn’t to notify media, it’s to protect patients and staff.”
On Sunday, UPMC’s media relations manager confirmed three employees had tested positive for the coronavirus during the past four days. A fourth positive test was reported late Monday afternoon, after the conference call.
Here’s how it unfolded:
The first positive test was reported late Wednesday, 12 days after the infected individual, a UPMC employee, had already been in self-imposed isolation to prevent infecting other people.
On Friday, UPMC and Trinity Health Systems decided to close the medical oncology side of the operation “for a period of self-quarantine” for staff members who might have been exposed.
That same day Trinity and its radiation oncology partner, Allegheny Health Services, decided to also close the rest of the center so a “thorough cleaning with infrared technology could be accomplished.”
During the weekend, the Jefferson County Health Department connected two additional cases of COVID-19 to the cancer center, and on Sunday UPMC confirmed three of its employees had tested positive for the coronavirus.
And on Monday, Jefferson County Health Commissioner Nicole Balakos announced a fourth person who tested positive for the coronavirus had been connected to the center.
In a statement issued Monday morning, Trinity said patients of the medical and radiation oncology programs had been notified by phone of their exposure “and were given assistance with their treatment plans.”
Trombetta bristled at suggestions they’d intentionally delayed reporting the COVID-19 cluster, saying the nation is in the midst of a pandemic.
“I don’t think there was any delay,” he said. “We had one person who was (in self-quarantine) for two weeks when we found out she was positive, so there was no delay. Even before we knew she was positive we were using CDC guidelines, limiting the number of people in the waiting room. In fact, no one was in the waiting rooms because we had people wait in their cars. Once we found out people had tested positive, we knew that could be a real problem, so everything stopped, immediately, and all the employees were tested. The results (for many) are pending.”
Trombetta said the building is being thoroughly decontaminated, but said it will remain closed “until all employees are negative or have passed CDC guidelines” after exposure. He said that could take at least another week to 10 days.
“The medical oncology clinic there will not reopen until after the quarantine period, because we know we do have positive staff members,” added Stephanie Dutton, a representative of the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. “To protect the patients and to protect the community, we will not be reopening until after the quarantine period.”
Dutton said the affected employees are “monitoring their symptoms from home.”
Dr. Kenneth Woods, medical director, infectious diseases at Trinity, said they’ve taken extra precautions to prevent the infection spreading to the rest of the Trinity West campus, including questioning employees and taking temperatures at the start of every shift, “sometimes twice a day.”
“Every single person in the building gets screened,” he said.
Minutes after the conference call ended, Balakos said she’d learned they’d connected a fourth employee to the cluster at the cancer center — bringing the total number of positive cases in the county to 10, with three of them requiring hospitalization.
Balakos said they discovered the fourth patient’s connection to the cancer center during the department’s “contact tracing” process — that’s where her staff follows up with those infected with the coronavirus to pin down where they work and who they might have crossed paths with while contagious, as well as track the onset and worsening of symptoms and remind them of the importance of remaining in strict isolation.
They’re also doing daily check-ins with individuals in self-quarantine because they were exposed to the virus to make sure they’re monitoring the onset and worsening of fever and other symptoms, and ensure they’re staying home.
Balakos said the follow-ups have been possible up to now because the county’s coronavirus caseload has been limited.
She said the state has given individual health departments the authority to discontinue contact tracing when the numbers become overwhelming, “but (as long as) we find it adds value, we are going to (continue).”