CALIFORNIA, USA — For the next month, hospitals in California facing staffing shortages can resort to a temporary rule set by the state that could require healthcare workers sick with COVID-19 to return to work.
Healthcare labor unions are decrying the relaxation in rules, saying it opens the door for more infections for them and patients.
Over the course of the pandemic, ultrasound technician Georgette Bradford has worked through labor shortages.
With an anticipated omicron surge straining hospital resources further, she’s appalled at new state guidance intended to alleviate the pressure.
"It's counter-productive. It's dangerous, and it's actually backwards to everything we're doing right now," she said.
Temporary guidance issued Saturday by the California Department of Health says healthcare workers who test positive or are exposed to COVID-19 may return to work immediately without quarantine or testing if they’re asymptomatic.
“We are in this industry to care for others; that’s the root word right there," Bradford said. "Yet we are asked to put others at potential harm because of short staffing, which really is about dollars and cents."
State public health officials say the move allows flexibility for healthcare settings that are experiencing unprecedented staffing shortages. The fine print indicates asymptomatic COVID-19 positive workers should always wear N-95 respirators and only interact with COVID-19 positive patients, to the extent possible. In a statement officials say:
"We are extremely grateful to all the health care workers across California who have worked tirelessly over the course of the pandemic in support of Californians impacted by COVID-19. While vaccines continue to protect against serious illness, hospitals are reaching capacity and staffing shortages are making it difficult to treat those who need essential care."
“I had to read it again, because I thought, this can’t be happening," said Sand Reding, president of the California Nurses Association. "This can’t be happening when we’re anticipating a surge. We have to have more stringent protections not less stringent protections”
The union protested the move in a day of action Saturday. Reding says the rule does more harm than good for both workers and patients.
“There’s not a shortage of nurses. There’s a shortage of nurses that want to come in and work in those type of conditions. So if you’re adding more dangerous protocols, that’s not going to help the situation," she said.
The labor union is demanding the state rescind the guidance immediately.
The guidance is in effect through Feb. 1. The public health department says hospitals must exhaust all options before mandating sick but asymptomatic employees to work.