June 28, 2021 -- Tim Oswalt had been in a Fort Worth, TX, hospital for over a month, receiving treatment for a grapefruit-sized tumor in his chest that was pressing on his heart and lungs. It turned out to be stage III non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Then one day in January, he was moved from his semi-private room to an isolated one with special ventilation. The staff explained he had been infected by the virus that was once again surging in many areas of the country, including Texas.
"How the hell did I catch COVID?" he asked the staff, who now approached him in full moon-suit personal protective equipment (PPE).
The hospital was locked down, and Oswalt hadn't had any visitors in weeks. Neither of his two roommates tested positive. He'd been tested for COVID-19 several times over the course of his nearly 5-week stay and was always negative.
"'Well, you know, it's easy to [catch it] in a hospital," Oswalt says he was told. "We're having a bad outbreak. So you were just exposed somehow.'"
Officials at John Peter Smith Hospital, where Oswalt was treated, say they are puzzled by his case. According to their infection prevention team, none of his caregivers tested positive for COVID-19, nor did Oswalt share space with any other COVID-positive patients. And yet, local media reported a surge in cases among JPS hospital staff in December.
"Infection of any kind is a constant battle within hospitals, and one that we all take seriously," says Rob Stephenson, MD, chief quality officer at JPS Health Network. "Anyone in a vulnerable health condition at the height of the pandemic would have been at greater risk for contracting COVID-19 inside -- or even more so, outside -- the hospital."
Oswalt was diagnosed with COVID-19 in early January. JPS Hospital began vaccinating its health care workers about 2 weeks earlier, so there had not yet been enough time for any of them to develop full protection against catching or spreading the virus.
Today, the hospital said 74% of its staff -- 5,300 of 7,200 workers -- are now vaccinated.
Oswalt's case illustrates the threat of health care-acquired COVID-19, a danger that lurks in American hospitals wh...