Medical Technology

Health Officials Let COVID-Infected Staff Stay on the Job

Editor’s note: Get the most recent COVID-19 news and instructions in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Center.

In the United States, health authorities are taking unprecedented steps to allow nurses and other workers with coronavirus to work even if they experience mild symptoms or have no symptoms.

The move is in response to the severe hospital staffing shortages as well as the crushing casesloads that the Omicron variant is causing.

California health officials announced on the weekend that hospital staff who test positive but are not suffering from any symptoms can work. Some hospitals in Rhode Island and Arizona have also informed employees that they can remain on the job even in the event that they do not have any symptoms or just mild symptoms.

The highly contagious COVID-19 Omicron variant has seen cases increase to more than 700,000. per day in the U.S., on average beating the record set a decade ago. The number of Americans in the hospital with the virus is about 110,000, just short of the peak of 124,000 in January.

Many hospitals are overwhelmed with patients and are extremely short of staff due to the high number of COVID-19-certified staff.

At the same time it appears that omicron may be more prone to illness than the delta variant.

In the last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that health professionals who have no symptoms can return to work after seven days with a negative test, but that the time to be isolated is reduced in the event of staff shortages.

France last week announced that it allows health professionals with no or mild symptoms to continue treating patients rather than isolate.

Dignity Health, a major hospital operator, sent a memo to staff informing them that those affected by the virus and able to work could request their managers’ permission to return to caring for patients. Dignity Health hospitals in California have not yet implemented the new guidelines but they said they might be required to do so in the next few weeks and days.

Dignity Health stated in a statement that it is doing everything it can to make sure employees return to work safely and protect patients and staff against the risk of transmission COVID-19.

California’s Department of Public Health stated that the new policy was inspired by “critical staffing shortages.” The agency urged hospitals to do everything they can to fill the gaps by bringing in staff from outside staffing agencies.

The department also stated that workers with COVID-19 should wear N95 masks that are extra-protective to safeguard themselves and be assigned to care for COVID-19-positive patients.

“We didn’t ask for this advice and we don’t have any data on whether hospitals will implement this approach or not,” said Jan Emerson-Shea spokesperson for the California Hospital Association. “But what we do know is that hospitals are expecting many more patients in the next few days than they’ll be able to treat with the resources available at present.”

Emerson-Shea said that many hospital workers have been exposed to the virus and are either sick or caring for family members who are.

The 100,000-member California Nurses Association came out against the decision, and warned that it will lead to more infections.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state health leaders “are placing the interests of health care companies over the safety of patients and workers,” Cathy Kennedy, the association’s president in an announcement. “We are determined to look after our patients and assist them to get better, not infect them.

This month, in Rhode Island, a state psychiatric hospital and a rehabilitation center were able to employ staff to test positive for COVID-19 to work. However, they were asymptomatic to continue working.

At Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital, chief medical officer Dr. Hany Atallah said they aren’t yet at breaking point and that those who test positive are staying away for five days. Dr. Atallah said, “We still need to be extremely vigilant to prevent spreading within the hospital.”

Kevin Cho Tipton, a Jackson Memorial nurse, said that he understood hospitals’ desire to allow their employees to return after five days of isolation for five days. However, he is concerned about the potential risk, especially for patients at greater risk of infection for example, those who receive transplants.

He said, “Yes, omicron can be less harmful however, we don’t know much about it.”

Associated Press writers Amy Taxin, in Orange County, Calif. and Terry Tang in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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