Hospitals in the United States are increasingly taking extraordinary steps by allowing nurses and other workers infected with the coronavirus to stay at work if they have mild or no symptoms.
The move is a response to the acute shortage of staff in hospitals and the huge number of patients caused by the omicron option.
Over the weekend, California health authorities announced that hospital staff who tested positive but had no symptoms could continue to work. Some hospitals in Rhode Island and Arizona have also told staff they can stay at work if they have no symptoms or only mild symptoms.
The highly contagious variant of omicron has caused the number of new COVID-19 cases to rise to an average of 700,000 per day in the United States, breaking the record set a year ago. The number of Americans in hospital with the virus is about 108,000, just below the peak of 124,000 in January last year.
Many hospitals are not only overwhelmed with cases, but also lack of manpower due to the fact that so many employees do not work with COVID-19.
At the same time, omicron causes milder disease than the delta variant.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last month that symptom-free healthcare workers can return to work after seven days with a negative test, but isolation times could be cut even further if there is a shortage of staff.
France announced last week that it is allowing healthcare workers with mild or no symptoms to continue treating patients rather than isolating them.
In the Phoenix area, Dignity Health, a major hospital operator, sent out a memo to employees saying that people infected with the virus who feel well enough to work can request permission from their managers to return to patient care.
“We are committed to ensuring that our employees can return to work safely, protecting our patients and staff from the transmission of COVID-19,” Dignity Health said in a statement.
In California, the Department of Public Health said the new policy was prompted by a “critical staff shortage.” He asked hospitals to do whatever it takes to fill the vacancies by hiring staff from third-party recruiting agencies.
In addition, the department said infected workers will be required to wear N95 masks with additional protection and should be assigned to treat other COVID-19 patients.
“We did not ask for this guidance, and we have no information on whether hospitals will take this approach or not,” said Yang Emerson-Shih, a spokesman for the California Hospital Association. “But what we do know is that hospitals are expecting many more patients in the coming days than they can handle with current resources.”
Emerson-Shih said many hospital workers have been exposed to the virus and are either sick or caring for sick family members.
The 100,000-member California Nursing Association opposed the decision and warned that it would lead to more infections.
Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state health leaders “prioritize the needs of healthcare corporations over the safety of patients and workers,” the association’s president, Katie Kennedy, said in a statement. “We want to take care of our patients and see them get better, not potentially infect them.”
Earlier this month, a state mental hospital and rehab center in Rhode Island allowed employees who tested positive for COVID-19 but had no symptoms.
At Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Chief Physician Dr. Hani Atalla said they had not yet reached the tipping point and that workers who tested positive would not be away for five days. “We still have to be very careful to prevent spread in the hospital,” he said.
Kevin Cho Tipton, a Jackson Memorial nurse, said he understands why hospitals want staff to return after five days of isolation. However, he is worried about the potential risk, especially for patients at increased risk of infection, such as those receiving transplants.
“Yes, Omicron is less dangerous, but we still don’t know much,” he said.
Associated Press contributors Amy Thaksin of Orange County, California, and Terry Tung of Phoenix contributed to this report.