Many health workers are still falling sick, which is compounding a staff shortage as more Americans seek hospital care. The decision to rely on employees who may still be infectious came despite objections from nurses unions and the American Medical Association, which warned the decision puts patients' health and safety at risk. There is no requirement for patients to be notified if their caregivers are sick.
Across the country, the practice is happening. A nurse in New Jersey was told to come to work despite concerns that she had contracted Covid-19, according to a union representative. In Rhode Island, a nursing home and state-run hospital system recently used workers who tested positive after the state updated its guidelines in accordance with the CDC. The hospital in Missouri will bring back nurses after five days if they are symptom free. Health care workers are being called in to work even if they suspect they are infectious.
It is comparable to March, April, May 2020. The president of New Jersey's largest health care union said she has not seen health care workers panicked since that time.
Interviews with several hospital executives, health care workers and health officials all said they are following the CDC's new advice. Facilities can bring back workers after five days of isolation, instead of 10, if they have a negative Covid-19 test. Hospitals can bring back staff when workforce shortages become extreme.
The Federation of American Hospitals is a lobbyist and president, and he said hospitals were generally pleased with the new guidance from the CDC. As the surge in Omicron cases crests, some public health experts support the measure, noting the importance of keeping health systems running to treat Americans.
A hospital in New York has moved to a five-day isolation period for workers, according to an infectious disease expert. Doctors and nurses are required to wear N-95 masks, the highest grade of protection available, even if they have previously been exposed to an infectious disease. She said that if people are wearing their mask, it is very low risk.
Some of the most vulnerable patients, like those with cancer, and those that don't respond well to vaccines, are at risk. It's dangerous to expose vulnerable patients or older residents in long-term care facilities because vaccines don't protect them from compromised immune systems.
Karen Knudsen, CEO of the American Cancer Society, told POLITICO that they don't think anyone who is positive should be with a cancer patient.
The CDC doesn't recommend that health providers tell patients if a worker spends more than 15 minutes with them at a distance of less than six feet. Health experts say that transmission can be done in less time and distance.
None of the hospitals contacted by POLITICO responded to the question of whether patients were informed of a recent illness.
The Research Medical Center in downtown Kansas City, Mo., changed its guidance after the CDC updated its guidelines, allowing workers to return to work after five days if they are free of symptoms. She said it felt irresponsible because they were being asked to work sick. The science shows that if you're not infectious, you're not.
The five-day rule was confirmed by Christine Hamele, who said that staff would not return to work if they were at risk of getting an infectious disease.
She said that the return-to-work guidelines for colleagues with Covid-19 were in line with CDC guidance.
The facilities that determine whether or not they have met the CDC guidelines are the ones that are facing a crisis, not the CDC. It is not known how many facilities are employing this practice.
Executives and health officials told POLITICO that they hope they won't have to resort to the more drastic measure.
The number of hospitals reporting critical staffing shortages grew by 165 since Thanksgiving, according to data from the HHS.
Janis Orlowski, chief health care officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges, said that between 5 and 7 percent of employees at several academic medical centers are out sick with Covid-19.
The secretary of health in Washington state told POLITICO last week that hospitals are not able to allow workers to stay on the job without being isolated for five days. He said that that could change. Staffing is not safe. He said that the next several weeks would be difficult for the state.
He said that Washington health centers allow staff that test positive to return after five days without a negative test. Hospitals aren't required to notify patients or other workers that a staffer tested positive
Elnahal, the CEO of the Newark hospital, said that hospitals don't require workers to test negative before returning from a five-day isolation because of a nationwide testing shortage.
If I had to keep testing my employees to bring them back to work, that would compromise access to testing for the community, because we have long lines outside of our testing clinic for patients and families.
Governors in Arkansas, Georgia, Ohio, Oregon and Pennsylvania have called up the National Guard to assist hospitals, though they aren't necessarily medically trained, according to a National Guard spokesman.
Elnahal said his hospital had requested federal support, but he was not sure if the program would make a difference. He said last week that they were not optimistic that enough people would be available from the federal government.
Elnahal said on Monday that FEMA is likely to send 10 staff to his hospital. "Anything helps," he said.
When worker shortages are leading to the cancellation of procedures, some hospitals are choosing not to reduce isolation periods for staff. A lack of beds and staff shortages have caused the University of Michigan Health to delay more than 200 surgeries.
The hospital was forced to delay the heart surgery of a 5-month-old boy because of the shortage.
Michigan Health requires employees who test positive to be isolated for 10 days. It won't change its policy.
As a mother, I was relieved to hear this. My son would be at risk of being exposed to Covid during his recovery.
This report was contributed to by the person named Darius Tahir.