University of Chicago Medical Center brings back furloughed workers without coronavirus symptoms as hospital cases grow

Dr. Emily Landon on Thursday said the hospital is currently treating more than 50 patients that have tested positive for COVID-19 and over 70 others who remain under investigation.

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COVID-19 testing area at the University of Chicago Medical Center, Friday, March 20, 2020.

A COVID-19 testing area at the University of Chicago Medical Center, Friday, March 20, 2020.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file photo

University of Chicago Medicine is bringing back staff members who were furloughed after potentially being exposed to the new coronavirus as the hospital responds to an “explosion of cases” of the deadly disease.

During an online press briefing Thursday, Dr. Emily Landon said the University of Chicago Medical Center is currently treating more than 50 patients that have tested positive for COVID-19 and over 70 others who remain under investigation.

“That number’s probably going up while we’re talking,” Landon told reporters.

Landon said “a lot of people in the hospital have been exposed” to the coronavirus, resulting in hundreds of employees being furloughed.

Those with respiratory or flu-like symptoms or a fever will remain on furlough, along with employees who have tested positive for COVID-19. But asymptomatic employees are now being called back.

“This is a big deal for us to be able to bring back these expert, skilled workers back into our workplace and really be able to help take care of the surge of patients that we’re expecting,” noted Landon, who said medical students are also being asked to volunteer.

The hospital system has also instituted a policy requiring all health care employees to wear cloth masks. The decision to rely on those types of masks, which Landon described as a “last resort,” was based on the nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment.

However, those masks won’t be used for patient care and are simply required to catch “personal respiratory droplets and help protect everyone in the workplace,” Landon said.

“These cloth masks are not worn into the rooms of patients that have respiratory symptoms,” she added. “They are not meant to protect our health care workers from other patients. They are meant to protect other health care workers from the mask wearer’s secretions.”

While Landon said she “didn’t feel right” calling furloughed workers back without giving them all masks, she acknowledged that the cloth masks are being used because the hospital system simply doesn’t have enough medical-grade surgical masks.

“I know there’s evidence out there that cloth masks are not as good as surgical masks,” she said. “But we definitely do not have enough surgical masks to provide to everyone in every patient encounter.”

“I really hope we never have to go to a point where we have to use fabric masks for patient care or for high-risk patients.”

As far as the highly sought after N95 respirators, which filter out 95% of airborne particles and have remained in short supply across the country, Landon said the hospital system still has enough to treat patients who are intubated or are receiving nebulizer treatments.

Landon said she’s “really worried” about masks being reused due to supply issues, noting that workers in the University of Chicago system are instead being allowed to wear masks for “extended use.”

“As long as you don’t take it off, you can keep wearing it,” she said.

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