14 cancer patients at Hamilton hospital saw doctor who tested positive for COVID-19

A Hamilton Health Sciences radiation oncologist is the city’s first confirmed positive case of COVID-19, a hospital spokesperson has confirmed.

On Wednesday, CBC learned a staff member in her 30s tested positive for COVID-19 after returning from a personal trip to Hawaii. Since the doctor’s return to the Juravinski Cancer Centre, she was in contact with both cancer patients and staff members.

The doctor was at work on the afternoon of March 9 and was tested that same day. She received confirmation of a positive test on March 10 and has been in self-isolation since.

The 32-year-old, who lives in Burlington, Ont., returned from her trip Saturday. Health officials say the doctor’s spouse is a surgeon at another Hamilton hospital, St. Joseph’s Healthcare. He is not showing symptoms, but is being monitored.

A spokesperson for St. Joe’s said the surgeon is also in self-isolation and awaiting the results of a test for COVID-19, which should come back in the next day.

“The St. Joe’s physician worked at St. Joe’s Charlton campus prior to his partner testing positive,” wrote Agnes Bongers in an email to CBC. “We are currently reviewing who he had contact with during that time.”

Speaking about the cancer centre case, Dr. Wes Stephen, executive vice-president and chief operating officer at Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS), said her case was quickly detected and all proper procedures were followed.

“When she began to show symptoms, infection-control protocol was swiftly initiated and she was tested in a safe environment,” he added.

“Out of an abundance of caution, last week, Hamilton Health Sciences expanded its criteria for testing beyond the standard case definition to include any travel outside Canada. As a result, this case was identified as quickly as possible. She is now in self-isolation protocol.”

During an update Wednesday afternoon, officials said the doctor had been in contact with 14 cancer patients. Staff are now in the process of reaching out to those people and their family members.

Five staff members, one senior oncology resident and three other doctors were also in contact with the physician; they’re all currently self-isolating, except for one doctor who has flown out of the country.

“I’m assuming when they land and turn on their phone, they’re going to get a message from us,” said Dr. Barry Lumb, site director for Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Centre.

Lumb said the doctor did not come from a high-risk area and “did the right thing right away” by contacting an infectious disease specialist; she underwent testing in an isolated room, where staff were wearing the correct protective equipment.

“I think we need to be quite proud of this physician,” he said.

“This was very early in this physician’s symptom complex. They did not have respiratory symptoms, such as cough and sneeze. They did not have a fever. And so we can’t say they’re not at risk, but our feeling is this was very early in her illness and therefore we’re very hopeful the risk to the patients is equally low.”

“I hope it’s not my doctor,” said Theresa Campbell, a 64-year-old cervical cancer patient. “It’s here. We knew it was coming … I’ll be putting a mask on.”

Speaking to CBC News as he left the hospital today after an appointment for his throat cancer, Jim Douglas, 70, told CBC News that “it’s scary that it’s here.”

“That kind of stuff scares me, because I’m in a position right now where my immune system in the next little while could be compromised because of the treatments I’m having. I’ve got to be very careful,” he said.

But as word spreads, patients and volunteers at the hospital are hearing the news from one another. Some are wondering where the staff member was within the facility.

Dr. Simon Oczkowski, president of the Hamilton Academy of Medicine and a critical care physician at HHS, said health-care professionals knew a first case would probably appear in Hamilton, but news that it was a doctor was “particularly troubling.”

“For us, as a profession, this is probably our worst-case scenario — the first confirmed case is a doctor who was at a hospital.”

Doctors have been cancelling their travel plans and taking precautions to make sure they don’t get sick, he added.

“We all know we’re going to be exposed to this if there’s a major outbreak. We all know there’s going to be a substantial risk of us getting affected. And we all want to work as hard as we can to prevent ourselves from getting infected, bringing it to our families, spreading it among our patients.”

Precautions taken at the hospital

In the meantime, HHS is working alongside the city’s public health department and says it has done the following:

  • Directed those who were in direct contact with the physician to go into self-isolation at home, for a period of 14 days.
  • Told others, including patients, who may have had indirect exposure because they were in clinic at the same time to self-monitor for any symptoms (fever above 38 degrees, coughing, nausea, etc.) and report the onset of any illness to public health officials.
  • Cleaned the physician’s office space, the clinic area and other spaces at the Juravinski Cancer Centre to remove the risk of the virus remaining on surfaces.

The hospital says there is no need for anyone else at the centre or other HHS sites to take any action.

“There is no escalated risk today at our clinic, it is functioning as usual,” said Aaron Levo, vice-president of communications and public affairs at HHS.

There have been 93 cases of COVID-19 identified in Canada so far, with 41 of those in Ontario, including this latest case.

As the global number of coronavirus cases nears 120,000 people in 115 countries, chances of stopping its spread are now considered unlikely. So public health officials have turned their attention to slowing it down.

During a news conference in Ottawa on Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a $1-billion fund to help Canadians cope with the spread of COVID-19.


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