Update as of 4:30 p.m. Friday: Samaritan Health confirmed Friday that a physician based in Watertown has tested positive for COVID-19.
According to a source, the doctor tested positive for the virus on Nov. 25, but Samaritan confirmed that the Jefferson County Public Health Service was not notified until five days later, on Nov. 30. The physician was asymptomatic prior to testing positive.
The Public Health Service then contacted 28 patients who were treated by the physician on Nov. 24 and 25, prior to the positive test result. One nurse who worked with the doctor on those dates has been informed, as well.
Officials from Samaritan also confirmed Friday that all patients potentially impacted have been contacted by Public Health.
The physician is currently in quarantine and has not been on Samaritan property since Nov. 25.
WATERTOWN — Samaritan Medical Center would neither confirm nor deny Thursday that a doctor on its staff tested positive for COVID-19 last week just hours after having seen patients.
On Wednesday, a patient of a local doctor within the Samaritan network was notified by contact tracers with the Jefferson County Public Health Service that they came in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 25. Having only gone to the doctor’s office that day, it wasn’t difficult for the patient to figure out who they came into contact with that tested positive.
The patient was then able to confirm this over the phone with the doctor that tested positive, a full week after the possible exposure occurred. The patient was never previously told by the doctor or Samaritan of the doctor’s positive test.
While Samaritan Health issues statements for each positive case regarding a staff member in one of its affiliated nursing homes, the hospital did not issue any releases regarding a doctor within the health system testing positive. For example, on Wednesday, Samaritan Health issued a statement announcing that on Tuesday, it received notice that four staff members at Samaritan Keep Home tested positive for COVID-19. Due to the positive cases, the limited visitation occurring at the residential facility is suspended once more.
According to Leslie DiStefano, director of communication and public relations for Samaritan, the difference is due to a state mandate for positive cases within nursing homes to be announced and families notified, whereas it is not policy for the hospital to announce other positives, like with the case of the local doctor.
“To my knowledge, it is not (announced) because it has to go through public health, and they have the tools and the interview questions to do the proper contact tracing,” Ms. DiStefano said. “Just as they’ve done with other businesses where there has been an employee or someone that’s had an outbreak, they have to then do the same thing; just because we’re in healthcare doesn’t mean we don’t follow their protocol.”
According to Ms. DiStefano, it’s the role of public health to do interviews and let individuals know they’ve been exposed to the virus, with Samaritan relying on public health for the interviews to determine who people have been in contact with.
Though the doctor who tested positive was notified of the results just hours after seeing patients, Samaritan did not reach out to any patients to let them know they had been exposed, leaving the job to public health.
“As much as you want to think that it should come from Samaritan, that’s not the way the system works because it’s a public health crisis,” she said.
The only way the hospital would do contract tracing, Ms. DiStefano said, is if those patients were an inpatient. If they were in Samaritan’s care, then hospital officials would let that patient know they had been exposed. The matter would then be taken over by public health.
“So there’s a little bit of just understanding of the process as well,” she added. “It’s easy to say, ‘Well, why didn’t Samaritan?’ But at the same stroke, we have to follow protocol.”
As for public health, there remains a process in place with steps to follow for contact tracing. Not including rapid tests, which give same-day results, it takes on average four to five days to get results back from tests sent out to various labs, according to Faith E. Lustik, public health planner.
Once a positive result comes back, there’s a 24-hour window to report it to the state. Once public health finally gets the case, they conduct a case investigation, which can take up to 24 hours. They then immediately transition into contact tracing to notify individuals of exposure and tell them to quarantine.
Ms. Lustik said public health is caught up with contact tracing at this point, working on new cases they’ve been notified of, a process she said is moving relatively quickly.
An obstacle to the contact tracing process, according to Ms. Lustik, is having those who have been exposed answer the phone or call contact tracers back.
“We at least make an attempt to reach them within 24 hours. If they don’t return the call, then we have to keep trying, of course, so there’s so many different factors,” she said. “I started doing contact tracing myself and I spend so much time just leaving voice messages, some have no voicemail set up, or others don’t have space for new messages.”
Ms. Lustik urges the public to answer their phones, clear out their voicemails or set one up if they haven’t yet in order to facilitate contact tracing and having quarantines accomplished in a timely manner.