Holidays are usually for gatherings but many get-togethers are complicated or canceled because of COVID-19.
SOUTH BEND — A recent wedding turned into a COVID-19 “super-spreader” that has sickened nurses and other health workers and could be causing a staffing crunch for at least one local hospital, two St. Joseph County health board members say.
The board members referenced the event at a public board meeting Wednesday night to emphasize the need for mask wearing and other safety measures as coronavirus rates, hospitalizations and deaths spike locally. The board oversees the St. Joseph County Health Department.
Board member Dr. Ilana Kirsch, a local obstetrician and gynecologist, said at the meeting that she heard about a “super-spreader event involving a lot of nurses at one of the hospitals … that has negatively impacted staffing at that hospital in the unit that it occurred in.”
In an interview Thursday, Kirsch said she heard about the event, a wedding, from a nurse who had knowledge of it, and that the nurses involved were not wearing masks or practicing physical distancing.
Kirsch would not name which hospital was affected but did say it was one of the local hospitals at which she has admitting privileges: Memorial Hospital in South Bend and Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center. Kirsch practices at the independent Family Medicine of South Bend.
Heidi Beidinger-Burnett, president of the health board, followed up Kirsch’s comments at the Wednesday meeting by saying she had heard a “rumor” about a super-spreader event at a wedding that had resulted in the isolation or quarantine of nearly 40 nurses and other hospital staff, possibly affecting two hospitals.
“The reason that this is concerning — we know people have COVID fatigue, we know this happens,” Beidinger-Burnett said in an interview Thursday. “But this is another example where we just have to say to ourselves, ‘We’ve got to pump the brakes.’ Either everybody’s got to wear a mask or we don’t have these kinds of events right now.”
Beidinger-Burnett, an assistant professor at the Eck Institute for Global Health at the University of Notre Dame, said she originally heard about the event from a trusted person and felt the information was confirmed when Kirsch brought it up at the meeting.
Calls for comment Thursday to Beacon Health System, which operates Memorial Hospital, and Saint Joseph Health System were not returned.
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Neither the county health officer, Dr. Robert Einterz, nor the deputy health officer, Dr. Mark Fox, said they could verify the super-spreader event described at the meeting.
Einterz did say at the health board meeting that local hospitals are working at capacity, with COVID patients at the “highest levels ever,” but that “fortunately their ICUs are not yet overloaded.” He also said hospital staffing in general has been crunched as the pandemic enters its eighth month locally.
Beacon Health System on Wednesday reported its highest number of COVID patients since the pandemic began, listing 82 patients among three area hospitals it operates, including Memorial.
Dr. Dale Patterson, vice president of medical affairs at Memorial, told the Indianapolis Star this week, “We have more COVID positive patients than we have had here at any time. We’re feeling very stretched right now with our ability to do more. If the number of patients goes up, it’s going to be very difficult to find enough room for everybody.”
To ensure that the hospital has sufficient beds, staff members have had to reschedule some procedures that would require the patient to stay overnight, Patterson said.
Kirsch said she wanted to make a point at the Wednesday meeting to people who have been skeptical of the health department’s order for people to wear face masks, as well as its pursuit of an ordinance to fine businesses that don’t comply with the order.
She said her goal was to “highlight the fact that when your caregivers are no longer available to care for you because they have been infected because of lack of mask wearing and social distancing, which is what we have been trying to promote all this time, it could negatively affect your health when God forbid you need to be hospitalized for either COVID, or any other reason that you would need to be hospitalized if you don’t have the appropriate number of caregivers.”
“I would encourage the public to support our health care providers, all of us who provide care, by trying to stay healthy yourself so you don’t need hospitalization and become a drag on increasingly limited resources as is happening now,” Kirsch said at the meeting.
In an effort to try to contain spread of the virus, county health officials in recent weeks have tried to enforce safety protocols at bars and restaurants, recommended severely limiting group gatherings and asked religious groups to suspend in-person services.
The health department also is pursuing an ordinance that would allow it to issue fines to businesses that do not enforce the county’s face mask order among employees, but the St. Joseph County Council has tabled a vote on the proposal until November
Contact Mary Beth Spalding of the South Bend Tribune at 574-235-6156 or [email protected]
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