The California Department of Public Health issued new guidance allowing hospitals and health networks to force COVID-postive healthcare workers to continue working if they are asymptomatic.
"The department is providing temporary flexibility to help hospitals and emergency services providers respond to an unprecedented surge and staffing shortages. Hospitals have to exhaust all other options before resorting to this temporary tool. Facilities and providers using this tool should have asymptomatic COVID-19 positive workers interact only with COVID-19 positive patients to the extent possible," the health department said in a statement.
The health department issued the guidance Saturday and specifies that healthcare workers don’t have to isolate or test negative and can immediately return to work if they are asymptomatic.
The guidance is in effect until Feb. 1 and comes as a wave of the omicron variant surges across the nation. Positive healthcare workers will need to wear N-95 respirator masks.
The announcement sparked outrage from the SEIU, as well as other health officials and workers in the state.
"Healthcare workers and patients need the protection of clear rules guided by strong science. Allowing employers to bring back workers who may still be infectious is one of the worst ideas I have heard during this pandemic, and that’s really saying something," Bob Schoonover, President of SEIU California and Executive Director of SEIU California, said.
Staffing issues have plagued hospitals across the country as the omicron variant of the virus spikes, including in California where vaccine mandates were put into effect last year mandating health workers get vaccinated or be terminated. Kaiser Permanente suspended over 2,000 unvaccinated employees in October and maintains those who still have not been vaccinated will face termination this month.
The president of the California Nurses Association, Sandy Reding, said the health department's move will put patients at risk.
"We are very concerned," she said. "If you have health care workers who are COVID positive care for vulnerable populations, we can spread the COVID virus inside the hospital as well."
"If we are going to set up for the surge, let’s set up protocols to have transmission reduced, which means not having COVID positive people come to work," Reding added.
But to Dr. George Rutherford, professor of Epidemiology at the University of California San Francisco, the decision is not unprecedented.
"This is about having infected people taking care of infected people. We did this with Ebola in South Africa. We’ve done it before. It’s not the first play option in our playbook. I think staffing issues are such that it led the state to put this guidance out," he said.
Staffing issues have been reported in various parts of the state, including San Diego. The CEO of Scripps Health in San Diego announced last week that six to eight health care workers are calling the hospital per hour to report they have COVID.
"In the emergency departments, we do have patients that are literally stacked up 20 to 30 in some of the hospitals, waiting for an open bed that will hopefully be available when we discharge patients," Chris Van Gorder, president and CEO of Scripps Health said.
Rhode Island rolled out a similar policy this month, giving COVID-positive health care workers the option to continue working if they have mild symptoms or are asymptomatic and if their hospital is facing a staffing crisis. The update came after the CDC’s revision on quarantine and isolation guidance for health care workers.