After firing unvaxxed health care workers, Rhode Island now allowing COVID-positive staff to work

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After hundreds of health care workers in Rhode Island were terminated for not being fully vaccinated by October 1 last year, the state is now allowing COVID-positive workers who “are asymptomatic” to return to work.

Citing instances where a staffing “crisis” makes it necessary, the state’s health department noted in a memo last week that there is now an option for COVID-positive health care workers to continue doing their jobs.

Employees at the state-run Eleanor Slater Hospital were told Friday that “those who are exposed or have a positive Covid test but are asymptomatic” can work “in crisis situations for staffing,” according to The Providence Journal.

Workers were told that they would have to wear N95 masks while on the job, however.

The news outlet reported that it had obtained a “copy of the guidance the health department initially issued on Dec. 30 and it reaches beyond the state hospital campuses in Cranston and Burrillville that provide care to about 200 medical and psychiatric patients.”

“The Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) is updating its COVID-19 quarantine and isolation guidance for healthcare personnel at hospitals and nursing homes who are exposed to or test positive for COVID-19,” the isolation and quarantine guidance said, in part.

“This change was not unique to ESH. Last week Rhode Island updated its quarantine and isolation guidance for the general public and for healthcare workers in hospitals and nursing homes in order to reflect “a national change,” and updated CDC guidance issued on Dec. 23, according to Joseph Wendelken, a spokesperson from the department of health.

“For the general public, the updated guidance (which shortens the isolation and quarantine period in some instances) is reflective of science that indicates that most SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs early in the course of illness,” he wrote, according to the Providence Journal.

“For healthcare providers, the CDC is recognizing that states across the country are experiencing healthcare worker shortages. If a facility is experiencing a significant staffing challenge, facility administrations may make a determination on the need to have … COVID-19 positive healthcare providers work.

“However, asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic workers should be considered first in these instances, and of course masks are required,” Wendelken added. “Also, facility administrators should be using their clinical judgement in making staffing decisions. For example, a facility may opt for a COVID-19 positive worker to only care for COVID-19 positive patients.”

Wendelken said that facility administrators would be the ones to make the final determination. As of yet, no hospitals have reportedly needed to call in any COVID-positive workers.

“No, no facility has reported to us yet that they are in a position that requires COVID-19 positive healthcare providers to be working. If a facility does reach that point, that information would be posted publicly so patients and families would be aware,” he told the Providence Journal.

Naturally, the state’s posting sparked questions and criticism on social media.

“Oh crap. We don’t have enough people,” one Eleanor Slater Hospital staffer told the newspaper, also noting that workers have been wearing regular surgical masks everyday because N95 masks and other PPE have been locked up and unavailable.

Wendelken reportedly responded to the barrage of questions, including why unvaccinated workers were not being allowed to return to work.

“An unvaccinated healthcare worker is at greater individual risk, given how many COVID-19 positive patients are in facilities,” he said Sunday. “Additionally, someone who is vaccinated and who tested positive for COVID-19 has a much lower viral load, compared to someone who is COVID positive and unvaccinated. This means that the likelihood of transmission is much less.”

The spokesman insisted Rhode Island is following the “CDC’s updated quarantine and isolation guidance for healthcare workers. States across the country are implementing this same approach.”

He also noted that: “We are working with [the R.I. Department of Education] on updated Q&I guidance for the school setting. That guidance should be available to school leaders shortly.”

Rhode Island Gov. Daniel J. McKee signed an executive order in late December protecting hospitals and health care workers from damages in civil lawsuits brought on by staffing or supply shortages.

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