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The University of Florida (UF) Health is refusing to confirm a cluster of COVID-19 infections in 17 residents, a fellow, and an administrative employee, all of whom reportedly contracted the illness at a private party.
The COVID cluster at the Gainesville-based system was brought to light by the university’s news service, Fresh Take Florida. According to a Fresh Take report on July 27, the residents and a fellow — all members of the anesthesiology department — went to a party earlier in July that was attended by 20 to 30 other residents.
Department chairman Timothy E. Morey, MD, wrote staff on July 10 to report the cases and said all affected were recovering at home, according to an email obtained by Fresh Take Florida. It is not clear whether the residents and fellow worked while infected. Morey did not return a request for comment as of press time.
UF Health did not notify the public — something that should not have been overlooked, said Arthur Caplan, MD, Drs William F. and Virginia Connolly Mitty Professor of Bioethics at New York University Langone Health (Caplan is also a frequent contributor to Medscape).
“If there was any chance of exposure to patients, visitors or the public, the hospital should have said they’ve had an outbreak and what they did about it,” Caplan told Medscape Medical News. People should also have been told that they might be contacted for purposes of tracing the outbreak, he said.
Ross McKinney Jr, MD, chief scientific officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges, said it should be viewed as a cautionary tale. “The story illustrates the fact that everyone, no matter what their age or professional background, needs to be careful with COVID,” McKinney told Medscape Medical News.
“Group gatherings where individuals are not wearing masks, particularly in close quarters with loud talking, are the ideal setting for a super-spreader event like this one,” he said.
McKinney noted the numerous direct and indirect consequences. Aside from getting sick, the residents or fellow could have put patients at risk if they were infected but asymptomatic.
Also, “the anesthesia department will now have to cover for sick residents and fellows who it thought were going to be available to work with patients,” he said, adding, “everyone, especially those who work in healthcare, must take personal responsibility.”
Disciplinary Action Warranted?
Caplan suggested that the residents and fellow should be disciplined. “If they went to a party and didn’t follow social distancing and masking, and were indoors, they should be disciplining them,” he said, adding that the hospital should also be “renewing their efforts at COVID prevention with everybody.”
Fresh Take Florida reports that UF’s anesthesiology department has almost 100 residents.
The health system told Medscape Medical News that only a small number — about 3.4% — of its 12,000 employees have gotten COVID. But when asked specifically about the residents and fellow, the organization said in a statement, “State and federal privacy laws are such that we often can’t comment on specific situations, and like any business, employees on occasion get sick.”
UF also said it follows Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance by isolating anyone who becomes sick and that it assists in contact tracing. Employees are not permitted to return to work until they are screened and retest negative, the health system said.
“The vast majority of our employees who tested positive over the past few months appear to have acquired COVID-19 in the community, not in the hospital setting,” the health system said, adding that most had been cleared to return to work, and that there had been no impact on patient care.