California is Now Allowing COVID-Positive Staffers to Keep Working Amid Surge

The new policy allows asymptomatic, COVID-positive healthcare workers to return to work immediately without isolation or testing

As the Omicron-fueled variant of COVID continues to surge, California hospitals are straining to provide medical care due to significant staff shortages and the influx of patients they are seeing each day.

The California Department of Public Health is attempting to address the state’s staffing issues through a new policy that allows asymptomatic healthcare workers who have tested positive for COVID to return to work immediately without isolation or testing. The policy, which is in effect until Feb. 1, is designed to keep healthcare workers on the job when they are expecting more patients, the Los Angeles Times reports.

California has seen a seven-day average of more than 15,000 COVID cases, with more than six million active cases reported in total, the Daily Mail reports. And as of Wednesday afternoon, there were 12,317 people hospitalized with a confirmed case statewide—a 158.8 percent increase from two weeks ago, according to the Times’ COVID tracker.

While some experts say California’s new guidance is unorthodox and necessary to get a hold on the COVID surge, many healthcare workers and community members say that it is ill-advised and could cause more harm.

“The situation just feels so hopeless,” Erin McIntosh, a rapid-response nurse at Riverside Community Hospital, told the Times. “I went into healthcare wanting to help people, but now I’m the vector. Someone is coming to me in their time of need, and I could potentially be passing them COVID.”

McIntosh also told the Times that potentially exposing patients to hospital workers who have tested positive is not the solution and that she’s already heard of COVID-positive workers attending to chemotherapy patients, women in labor, and patients in neonatal intensive care.

The announcement has sparked outrage from many in the healthcare community including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents workers in Southern California.

“Healthcare workers and patients need the protection of clear rules guided by strong science,” Bob Schoonover, President of SEIU California and Executive Director of SEIU California told CBS Sacramento. “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.”

Some experts say patients who are treated by asymptomatic employees, who are following protocols, are relatively safe, and that the new guidance is a temporary fix to a major issue.

“Is the situation ideal? No,” Dr. Robert-Kim Farley, an epidemiologist and infectious-diseases expert at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, told the Times. “Is it the lesser of the two evils of having no one to care for patients, versus having staff caring for them that may have COVID? Yes, it’s the lesser of two evils.”

According to the California Department of Public Health’s guidelines, hospitals should exhaust all other options before resorting to the new policy, and employees who tested positive for COVID “should preferably be assigned to work with COVID-19 positive patients.” These workers must wear an N95 mask.

Some healthcare workers have said it is hypocritical of the state to ask COVID-positive workers to continue working after implementing a strict vaccine mandate that cost dozens of employees their jobs.

“Workers are feeling like they’re being devalued — their own lives, their families’ lives — are being disrespected,” Gabriel Montoya, an emergency medical technician at Kaiser Downey, told the Times. “And then they’re being retraumatized by again having to go into the workplace facing obstacles that we didn’t have to face the day before.”

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