CLOSE

Thirteen nurses at CoxHealth and Mercy have tested positive for COVID-19 and are active cases, currently unable to work.

Five are employed at Mercy and eight work for CoxHealth.

The numbers do not include nurses who had tested positive and have recovered or were quarantined and returned to work.

Not all 13 nurses work directly with COVID-19 patients. Most contracted the disease outside the hospital.

Nevertheless, as infection rates rise throughout Missouri, I want to thank all health care professionals in the Ozarks for their devotion to duty during these scary times.

The genesis of this column was an anonymous email tip I received Tuesday. The tipster said a Mercy nurse who worked with COVID-19 patients had tested positive and had been admitted to the hospital.

Anonymous information is always problematic for reporters — at least those of us in the “mainstream media” who care about where the tip comes from and how accurate it is.

I don’t know who sent the email. The email name actually is “Anon Ymous.”

I had not heard from Anon Ymous since 2016. The subject always was Mercy and the content, if true, was never flattering to the hospital.

I keep a file of printouts of my Anon Ymous emails. The writer disclosed this much in 2016: “I am not a Mercy co-worker. I am closely tied with one.”

When I received this week’s tip, I thought the subject matter important enough to warrant a call to Mercy spokeswoman Sonya Kullmann.

More: Pokin Around: Defense lawyers say it’s OK for clients to look at jurors — just don’t stare

Let me ask a different way

I asked Kullmann if she could verify any part of the question: Has a Mercy nurse who worked with COVID-19 patients tested positive for the virus and been admitted to a hospital?

She responded the way I thought she might.

“Federal privacy law prevents us from discussing the individual health conditions of our patients, including our co-workers.”

She is referring to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996. It was created primarily to modernize the flow of health care information and stipulate how personally identifiable information maintained by the health care and health care insurance industries should be protected from fraud and theft.

I and many other journalists believe hospitals often use HIPAA to prevent the release of information HIPAA does not even address.

Story continues below

When I ask how many nurses who work in the COVID-19 unit have tested positive for the virus, am I asking for information that identifies an individual?

The answer depends, I would think, on how many nurses work in the COVID-19 unit.

For example, if I were to contract the virus (which I have not) and someone wanted to know how many metro columnists at the News-Leader have tested positive … I can understand how a particular individual could be identified. Namely, me.

More: Pokin Around: Landscaped message for stillborn baby; ‘She can see it from the heavens above’

Kullmann went on to say:

“Because COVID-19 has become more prevalent in our local communities, it is not unexpected that we would have cases confirmed in caregivers.

“Like others, they must venture out to shop for necessities and perform other essential tasks. Contact tracing by local public health officials would alert anyone who has been in close contact with individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19.

“Patient and co-worker safety is our top priority. Even before the City of Springfield passed a masking ordinance, all Mercy co-workers were masking while on the job. Our appropriate use of PPE, social distancing, handwashing and daily co-worker screenings are all designed to protect our caregivers and those we serve.”

That didn’t really answer my original question.

So I tried again.

How many full-time Mercy employees currently have tested positive for COVID-19?  

How many of such employees are nurses?

She asked: “Are you asking other health care providers in town for this same information?”

CoxHealth has provided such information in the past. I had not planned to call CoxHealth for this story initially — the tip involved a Mercy nurse — but I did after Kullmann asked if the story would extend beyond Mercy.

A different type of response from Cox

Here is what I ultimately received from Mercy:

“Mercy in Springfield (including clinics) has 14 COVID-positive co-workers, five of whom are nurses, all from different areas. All are off work and will follow medical advice regarding their return to the job.”

It does not confirm the anonymous tipster’s statement that a Mercy nurse who works with COVID-19 patients has contracted the disease and been hospitalized.

I sent the same questions to CoxHealth and received a swift response.

In the interest of full disclosure, Cox spokeswoman Kaitlyn McConnell is a friend of mine.

She wrote: “Since CoxHealth enacted universal masking in June, only two employees have been diagnosed with COVID-19 due to a known patient exposure. These cases occurred when the patients were unable to mask, supporting the science that masking can make a great difference in reducing the spread of the virus.

“Over the course of the pandemic, 108 out of 12,500 CoxHealth employees have tested positive for COVID-19. Of this figure, we believe approximately 25 are currently off work while recovering from the virus, and eight of those employees are nurses. Out of the 108 who have tested positive, 95 are definite community exposure or unknown cause.

“… Throughout this pandemic, we have had enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect our staff, which has been proven to stop transmission of the virus. This is reinforced by the facts that CoxHealth staff have cared for hundreds of patients with COVID-19, and there have been only six cases as a result of known patient exposure.

“Of that figure, two nurses on the COVID unit have tested positive, and one was a known community exposure. Both of them have returned to work.”

More: Pokin Around: Reader’s story prompts my memory of swimming naked in high school P.E. class

These are the views of News-Leader columnist Steve Pokin, who has been at the paper eight years, and over his career has covered everything from courts and cops to features and fitness. He can be reached at 417-836-1253, spokin@gannett.com, on Twitter @stevepokinNL or by mail at 651 Boonville Ave., Springfield, MO 65806.

Read or Share this story: https://www.news-leader.com/story/news/local/ozarks/2020/08/07/covid-missouri-nurses-test-positive-cox-mercy-hospitals-coronavirus/3310679001/