Update: This post has been updated with new information on the Washington state case.
Two emergency room doctors on opposite sides of the country are in critical condition after contracting the novel coronavirus.
One doctor in his 70s in Paterson, New Jersey, tested positive for the virus after coming down with respiratory symptoms, while another ER doctor in Kirkland, Washington, has symptoms consistent with the virus, the American College of Emergency Physicians said in a statement shared first with TPM.
Both cases are potential candidates for the first cases of so-called occupational transmission of the disease, by which the novel coronavirus spreads from patients to the doctors treating them.
But though the cases highlight the risk that emergency room doctors are taking in treating the illness, the extent of community transmission in Washington state and potentially across the U.S. makes it difficult to pinpoint the origin. Kirkland is at the epicenter of the Washington state outbreak.
TPM learned of the Washington case on Friday and reached out to the hospital where the doctor was employed for confirmation. A hospital spokeswoman told TPM that she did not have information verifying the report.
“This virus is dangerous, and its impact is still unfolding,” ACEP President William Jacquis said in a statement. “As emergency physicians, we answer the call to care for our most vulnerable, even at great personal risk.”
Seattle-area hospitals are reportedly running low on protective equipment that mitigates the potential for transmission.
But according to Liam Yore, a former president of ACEP’s Washington state chapter, that was not a factor in this case.
“Well-considered measures to keep providers safe are always followed, but with highly contagious disease, sometimes transmission may happen despite our best efforts,” Yore told TPM, saying also that the doctor had not treated any patients while ill.
Yore added that the Washington doctor had tested positive for COVID, telling TPM that the results were received after the statement was written.
The new infections come as hospitals around the country brace for what may be an onslaught of COVID-19 patients, stocking up on their protective equipment, canceling elective procedures, and issuing guidance to doctors on how to approach the situation.
“There’s more anxiety, given how contagious the coronavirus is,” Chris Lee, a professor at Vanderbilt Medical School told TPM. “Everyone has more concern given that our occupation puts us on the frontlines of potentially becoming ill from this virus.”
The New Jersey doctor leads the emergency preparedness unit of his hospital. The Washington doctor works in his hospital’s emergency room, and was admitted Friday morning.
Read the statement below:
Today we received word that two of our ACEP members are in critical condition as a result of COVID-19. An emergency physician in his 40s in the state of Washington presented with symptoms consistent with the COVID-19 syndrome. A 70-year-old member in New Jersey has tested positive for the virus. I am deeply saddened by this news, but not surprised. As emergency physicians, we know the risks of our calling. We stand united with our colleagues and our thoughts and prayers for a full and speedy recovery are with each of them and their families.
In Washington, whether this was a case of occupational transmission or community-based spread of the disease is unknown. The hospital was acutely aware of the COVID-19 risk to health care workers and has worked closely with the CDC to ensure the appropriate policies and procedures are in place to mitigate risk. This emergency physician complied at all times with appropriate PPE procedures.
In Paterson, NJ, the physician, who leads his institution’s emergency preparedness, was admitted to the hospital several days ago with upper respiratory problems and remains in isolation in its intensive care unit.
It is my hope that these colleagues and their cases serve as a reminder to each of us to stay vigilant. This virus is dangerous, and its impact is still unfolding. As emergency physicians, we answer the call to care for our most vulnerable, even at great personal risk. Knowing that, I urge each of you to meticulously follow the recommended precautions to protect yourself.
Rest assured ACEP will continue working tirelessly at the national level to ensure our members are safe. We remain in contact with CDC, Congress, regulatory agencies and other key decision-makers to do all we can to protect patients, physicians and emergency personnel.
I am proud of your competence, dedication and, most of all, your bravery. As our thoughts turn toward Washington and New Jersey, we remain committed to being there for anyone, at any time.