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August 11, 2020

Originally posted on triblive.com | PAULA REED WARD | Friday, August 7, 2020 6:31 p.m.

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KRISTINA SERAFINI | TRIBUNE-REVIEW Assitant District Attorney Ted Dutkowski at his Crafton Heights home on Aug. 5. Dutkowski continues to recover from covid-19 after spending 11 days in the hospital.

Allegheny County Assistant District Attorney Ted Dutkowski has been home from the hospital nearly twice as long as he was in. He still cannot walk a flight of stairs — up or down — without struggling to breathe.

His oxygen saturation rate regularly drops, even with the slightest exertion. Dutkowski, 61, said inhaling deeply still causes fits of coughing.

As he continues to recover from covid-19, which he believes he contracted at the Allegheny County Courthouse, Dutkowski cannot yet return to his work as a prosecutor in the narcotics unit. He remains unsure when he will.

In the meantime, he is scheduled for a hearing this month before a Bureau of Workers’ Compensation judge after his initial claim with Allegheny County was denied.

His colleague and longtime friend, Assistant District Attorney Russ Broman, who is believed to have contracted covid-19 in late June from Dutkowski in the small office they share at the courthouse, remains on a ventilator. He has been hospitalized for nearly a month.

The workers’ comp claim filed on Broman’s behalf by his wife also was denied, according to Kevin McCarthy, the bargaining unit president of their United Steelworkers local union, which represents the assistant district attorneys and public defenders.

According to the notice and a July 22 letter sent to Dutkowski, his claim was denied because he “did not suffer a work-related injury.”

UPMC’s Workpartners, which administers Allegheny County’s workers’ compensation claims, gave no other explanation for the denial.

Amie Downs, a spokeswoman for the county, said she cannot comment on personnel matters.

“There should be a recognition by the county that by keeping those facilities open, they’ve exposed these employees to risk,” McCarthy said. “That’s the whole point to the Workers’ Compensation Act — to compensate workers who are being endangered on the job.”

To succeed with a claim, an employee must show that he was injured — or contracted a disease — at work.

Across Pennsylvania, there were 5,354 initial workers’ compensation claims received between March 11 and Aug. 7 that were related to covid-19, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry.

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KRISTINA SERAFINI | TRIBUNE-REVIEW Assitant District Attorney Ted Dutkowski at his Crafton Heights home on Aug. 5. Dutkowski continues to recover from covid-19 after spending 11 days in the hospital. 

Isolation

The Allegheny County Courthouse on Downtown’s Grant Street was closed from mid-March to early June because of the pandemic. On June 25, a court reporter who had worked earlier that week in a fifth-floor courtroom tested positive for the virus. Dutkowski was in that courtroom the next day.

He started to feel like he was coming down with a cold around June 29 and began to quarantine himself in the basement away from his wife and two teenage sons.

Dutkowski said he then began to have flu-like symptoms, including body aches, feeling run-down and a fever that peaked at 103 degrees. He was tested for covid-19 on June 30 and got his positive results two days later.

As the week progressed, he said, there was an increasing inability to breathe, and the distance he could walk without having to fight for air kept getting shorter.

On July 5, that distance was reduced to standing up from a seated position, Dutkowski said. He didn’t think he wouldn’t make it through the night and called 911.

“Putting the mask on to get (to the ambulance) felt like someone putting a pillow over my face,” he said. “I didn’t know where my next breath was going to come from.”

Dutkowski was taken to Allegheny General Hospital and put in isolation. Each time he was moved from one room to another — for example, to go for testing — a security officer would precede him and clear the hallways so no one was exposed to the virus.

“Thankfully, they weren’t yelling, ‘Unclean, unclean,’ ” he said. “You sort of feel like a modern-day leper.”

The isolation was difficult, Dutkowski said. He did not see his wife, who tested positive for the virus and experienced a loss of smell and taste, bad headaches and fatigue, or his sons the entire time he was hospitalized. His sons tested negative.

“You’re left with your own thoughts — the effects on yourself, the long-term effects on your family, whether you’re going to make it,” he said. “There’s a lot of time to think about that.”

Still, Dutkowski was able to joke with his care team, commenting to a nurse after he was moved to Room No. 666 that he’d like a crucifix and some holy water.

“There were many times you wanted to cry, but you didn’t want to expend the energy to do that,” he said.

Normal, healthy lungs, Dutkowski was told, should show up on images dark and clear. He said his looked like satellite photos of the Eastern Seaboard at night.

He was given steroids, antibiotics, convalescent blood plasma and an anti-viral medication.

He was very close to having to be placed on a ventilator.

But after a couple of days on the medications, he continued, his head began to clear.

“I had a better outlook — that I was actually taking part in this life instead of just observing it,” he said.

He finally was released from the hospital on July 15. The hot humid air was difficult to tolerate, Dutkowski said. Initially, he recalled feeling like he was breathing in a sauna.

Dutkowski called the respiratory aspects of his illness terrifying.

“You’re worried whether you’re going to be getting another breath,” he said.

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KRISTINA SERAFINI | TRIBUNE-REVIEW Assitant District Attorney Ted Dutkowski at his Crafton Heights home on Aug. 5. Dutkowski continues to recover from covid-19 after spending 11 days in the hospital. 

Slow recovery

He described his improvement as “incremental.

“I have seen slow progress, but progress (all) the same,” he said. “I look at it as I’m a lucky man, based on what could have been. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.”

Dutkowski continues to have difficulty speaking for any length of time, often having to stop and catch his breath before continuing.

“It’s difficult for a lawyer to have a compromised ability to speak — although some might think that’s a godsend,” he said.

Since he became ill, Dutkowski said he has seen an outpouring of support from his office, colleagues and the defense bar.

After 12 people within the court system tested positive in late June and early July, there was an outcry among attorneys. President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark issued an order requiring that most proceedings in criminal court be conducted through video teleconferencing to limit exposure to employees, and that policy continues.

Attorney Tom Baumann, who has been practicing workers’ compensation law for 35 years, said it is likely that Broman, 65, will have an easier time winning his case than Dutkowski.

“The attitude with the employer is going to be, ‘How can you prove you got it on the job?’ ” Baumann said. “It’s a lot easier case with the second person in the office than the first.

“The second person can say, ‘I sat next to Employee A. He had it, and now I’ve got it.’ ”

“There’s no question Russ contracted covid while doing his job,” McCarthy said. “It’s not a question of guilt or blame or liability. He was simply doing his job and contracted the disease.”

Workers’ compensation pays two-thirds of an employee’s average wages — with a cap just over $1,000 — per week, with no taxes taken out. It also reimburses the employee for any co-pays or deductibles paid for medical care and allows the employee to keep his sick leave, although in this case, neither Dutkowski nor Broman have had to use it. And later, if there is a recurrence, or aggravation of the disease or injury, the claim can remain open, said attorney Fred Soilis, who represents Dutkowski.

Soilis said he wasn’t shocked by the initial denial of Dutkowski’s claim.

“Obviously, the covid crisis is unique,” he said. But he continued, “The system has dealt with occupational diseases. We can win this claim.”

Soilis expects heightened scrutiny because the country is in the midst of a pandemic.

“They don’t want to accept these claims because of opening Pandora’s box and the floodgates of litigation,” he said.

Baumann agreed.

“They’re always worried if they pay this one, there will be a flood of claims, and if we pay this one, we’ll have to pay all of them.”

Sometimes, in a workers’ compensation claim, there is a question as to whether an injury actually occurred. Soilis does not expect to have to fight to prove Dutkowski had covid.

Instead, in his case, “The obvious focus is: Where did he get it?”

Soilis said the burden falls to him and his client.

“Having gone through this, I just don’t understand how someone could minimize the severity of the threat this disease poses to anyone,” Dutkowski said. “I can’t imagine how someone could rationally not wish to take precautions to protect themselves, and more importantly, the people they love around them.”

Paula Reed Ward is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paula by email at pward@triblive.com or via Twitter .