(KHN)They went into hospitals with heart attacks, kidney failure or in a psychiatric crisis.
They left with covid-19 — if they left at all.
More than 10,000 patients were diagnosed with covid in a U.S. hospital last year after they were admitted for something else, according to federal and state records analyzed exclusively for KHN. The number is certainly an undercount, since it includes mostly patients 65 and older, plus California and Florida patients of all ages.
Yet in the scheme of things that can go wrong in a hospital, it is catastrophic: About 21% of the patients who contracted covid in the hospital from April to September last year died, the data shows. In contrast, nearly 8% of other Medicare patients died in the hospital at the time.
Steven Johnson, 66, was expecting to get an infection cut out of his hip flesh and bone at Blake Medical Center in Bradenton, Florida, last November. The retired pharmacist had survived colon cancer and was meticulous to avoid contracting covid. He could not have known that, from April through September, 8% of that hospital's Medicare covid patients were diagnosed with the virus after they were admitted for another concern.
Johnson had tested negative for covid two days before he was admitted. After 13 days in the hospital, he tested positive, said his wife, Cindy Johnson, also a retired pharmacist.
Soon he was struggling to clear a glue-like phlegm from his lungs. A medical team could hardly control his pain. They prompted Cindy to share his final wishes. She asked: "Honey, do you want to be intubated?" He responded with an emphatic "no." He died three days later.
After her husband tested positive, Cindy Johnson, trained in contact tracing, quickly got a covid test. She tested negative. Then she thought about the large number of hospital staffers flowing into and out of his room — where he was often unmasked — and suspected a staff member had infected him. That the hospital, part of the HCA Healthcare chain, still has not mandated staff vaccinations is "appalling," she said.
"I'm furious," she said.
"How can they say on their website," she asked, "that the safety precautions 'we've put into place make our facilities among the safest possible places to receive healthcare at this time'?"
Blake Medical Center spokesperson Lisa Kirkland said the hospital is "strongly encouraging vaccination" and noted that it follows Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and federal and state guidelines to protect patients. President Joe Biden has called for all hospital employees to be vaccinated, but the requirement could face resistance in a dozen states, including Florida, that have banned vaccine mandates.
Overall, the rate of in-hospital spread among Medicare and other patients was lower than in other countries, including the United Kingdom, which makes such data public and openly discusses it. On average, about 1.7% of U.S. hospitalized covid patients were diagnosed with the virus in U.S. hospitals, according to an analysis of Medicare records from April 1 to Sept. 30, 2020, provided by Dr. James Kennedy, founder of CDIMD, a Nashville-based consulting and data analytics company.
Yet the rate of infection was far higher in 38 hospitals where 5% or more of the Medicare covid cases were documented as hospital-acquired. The data is from a challenging stretch last year when protective gear was in short supply and tests were scarce or slow to produce results. The Medicare data for the fourth quarter of 2020 and this year isn't available yet, and the state data reflects April 1 through Dec. 31, 2020.
A KHN review of work-safety records, medical literature and interviews with staff at high-spread hospitals points to why the virus took hold: Hospital leaders were slow to appreciate its airborne nature, which made coughing patients hazardous to roommates and staff members, who often wore less-protective surgical masks instead of N95s. Hospitals failed to test every admitted patient, enabled by CDC guidance that leaves such testing to the "discretion of the facility." Management often failed to inform workers when they'd been exposed to covid and so were at risk of spreading it themselves.
Spread among patients and staffers seemed to go hand in hand. At Beaumont Hospital, Taylor, in Michigan, 139 employee covid infections were logged between April 6 to Oct. 20 last year, a hospital inspection report shows. Nearly 7% of the Medicare patients with covid tested positive after they were admitted to that hospital for something else, the federal data shows. A hospital spokesperson said tests were not available to screen all patients last year, resulting in some late diagnoses. He said all incoming patients are tested now.