Hospitals across the United States are increasingly making the extraordinary decision to allow nurses and other workers infected with COVID-19 to continue working with little or no symptoms.
The move is in response to a shortage of staff in hospitals and the staggering number of cases that the omicron variant of the coronavirus is causing.
California health authorities announced over the weekend that hospital personnel who test positive but are asymptomatic can continue to work. Some hospitals in Rhode Island and Arizona have also informed employees that they can continue to work if they have no or only mild symptoms.
The omicron variant has triggered new cases of COVID-19 in the United States above 700,000 a day on average, surpassing the record set a year ago. The number of Americans hospitalized with the virus hovers around 110,000, just shy of the peak of 124,000 recorded in January last year.
Many hospitals are not only overwhelmed with cases, but are dealing with a staff shortage due to many employees being infected with COVID-19.
The omicron variant is highly contagious, but appears to cause less severe disease than the delta variant.
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicated that health care workers who do not have symptoms can return to work after seven days after having a negative diagnostic test, but that the The quarantine period can be further shortened if there is a shortage of staff.
Last week, France announced that it would allow health workers with mild or asymptomatic symptoms to continue caring for patients rather than isolate themselves.
In the Phoenix metropolitan area, Dignity Health, a major hospital operator, sent a memo to staff stating that those who are infected with the virus and feel well enough to work could request permission from their managers to return. to attend to patients. Dignity Health hospitals in California have not yet implemented the new guidelines, but indicated that they may need to do so in the coming days and weeks.
“We are doing everything possible to ensure that our employees can safely return to work while protecting our patients and staff from the spread of COVID-19,” Dignity Health said in a statement.
In California, the Department of Public Health reported that the new policy was established in the face of “critical staff shortages.” He asked hospitals to make every attempt to fill in the gaps by bringing in employees from outside staffing agencies.
Additionally, infected workers will have to wear additional protective N95 masks and would be assigned to care for other COVID-19 patients, the department noted.
“We are not asking for these guidelines, and we do not have any information on whether hospitals will implement them or not,” said Jan Emerson-Shea, spokesman for the California Hospital Association. “But what we do know is that hospitals expect many more patients in the coming days than they will be able to treat with current resources.”
Emerson-Shea said many hospital workers have been exposed to the virus, and are either ill or caring for family members who are.
The California Nurses Association, which has 100,000 members, spoke out against the decision and warned that it will result in much more infections.
Governor Gavin Newson and other state health officials “are putting the needs of corporate health care over the safety of patients and workers,” said Cathy Kennedy, president of the association, in a statement. “We want to take care of our patients and see them improve, not infect them.”
A few days ago in Rhode Island, a state psychiatric hospital and rehab facility allowed staff who tested positive for COVID-19 to report to work as long as they were asymptomatic.
At Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital, Medical Director Hany Atallah said they have yet to reach the point of staffing shortages and that employees who test positive for the virus are absent from work for five days. “We still have to be very careful to avoid infections in the hospital,” he said.
Kevin Cho Tipton, a Jackson Memorial nurse, said he understands why hospitals expect employees to return after five days of isolation. However, he is concerned about possible risks, especially for the most vulnerable patients, such as those awaiting a transplant.
“Yes, omicron is less lethal, but there is still much that we do not know,” he stressed.
Associated Press reporters Amy Taxin in Orange County, California and Terry Tang in Phoenix contributed to this report.