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After 18 VA patients contract COVID in hospital and 1 dies, top doc rips staff for coming to work sick, not masking

“We have committed very real harm to a large number of patients this week,” Dr. Sarah Unterman, chief of staff for the hospital, said in a memo excoriating the “horrific and disturbing” situation.

Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, 820 S. Damen Ave., Chicago
At least 18 patients hospitalized at Jesse Brown VA Medical Center have contracted COVID-19.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

At least 18 people hospitalized at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center have tested positive for COVID-19 and potentially caught the disease from a sick staff member who continued to work for several days, according to an internal memo shared with the Sun-Times.

At least one of the patients has died.

Dr. Sarah Unterman, chief of staff at the hospital, called the situation “horrific and disturbing” in a memo sent to staff members last week, in which she also said many staff members weren’t wearing masks.

“We have committed very real harm to a large number of patients this week,” Unterman said in the memo. “All of these patients are vaccinated, and yet when a sick staff member came to work several days in a row, they exposed many patients to COVID who were here for other reasons.”

Unterman declined to comment directly about the memo and referred all questions to the hospital’s communications team. On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the hospital confirmed the memo was sent to staff last week.

Two high-risk patients who contracted COVID-19 were a patient over the age of 90 and a patient awaiting a lung transplant.

“We did this. And we all need to take responsibility,” Unterman wrote. “We absolutely must do and be better for the sake of our patients and our staff.”

In response to the recent outbreak, the 220-bed veterans hospital put in place restrictions for visitors at its main campus at 820 S. Damen Ave. Only a maximum of two inpatient visitors per patient are allowed into the facility for “end-of-life hospitalizations.”

Outpatient services remained unchanged with visitors only allowed in the facility if they are assisting a veteran who requires help, such as patients in wheelchairs.

Unterman stressed employees who are sick should stay home and put in place additional restrictions to help mitigate the spread of the virus, including mandating all staff members wear N95 masks and eye protection whenever entering a patient’s room in certain areas of the hospital.

All patients will need to wear hospital-issued masks when staff or visitors enter their rooms or are being transported through the hospital.

“Our hope is that this will not occur again and that these measures will lead to the prevention of COVID-19 in the future for the health and safety of veterans, their families, caregivers and our staff,” the spokeswoman said.

Unterman repeatedly urged staff members to wear a mask and said she had walked through the facility and ”found literally dozens of people (patients, staff, visitors) who either were not wearing a mask at all” or weren’t wearing it properly.

“We are better than this,” Unterman said. “We are supposed to be a place of healing, not a place of harm.”