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Health care workers are panicked as desperate hospitals ask infected staff to return

Hospitals and long-term care facilities are so short-staffed, many are relying on new CDC guidance to bring asymptomatic doctors and nurses back to work.

None of the hospitals POLITICO contacted responded when asked whether patients are informed if a caregiver was recently infected.

Jennifer Caldwell, an ICU nurse at the Research Medical Center in downtown Kansas City, Mo., said her hospital changed its guidance soon after the CDC’s update, allowing workers to return to work after five days provided they are asymptomatic. “It feels extremely irresponsible because you’re asking us to work sick,” she said. “The science shows that just because you’re asymptomatic doesn’t mean that you’re not infectious.”

A spokesperson for the hospital, Christine Hamele, confirmed the five-day rule and said staff “do not return to work if they are an infection risk with symptoms.”

She added, “Our return-to-work guidelines for colleagues with Covid-19 are consistent with CDC guidance.”

The CDC’s new guidance also allows health care facilities facing “crisis” levels of staffing to keep infected workers on the job without isolation but it’s the facilities — not the CDC — that determine whether they’ve met that level, an agency spokesperson said. It couldn’t immediately be determined how many facilities are employing this practice.

Executives and health officials told POLITICO they hope they will not have to resort to the more drastic measure — though they couldn’t be sure, given the severity of the Omicron surge.

Since Thanksgiving, the number of hospitals voluntarily reporting critical staffing shortages grew by about 165 to a total of 1,118 hospitals, according to data from HHS.

Anecdotally, between 5 and 7 percent of employees at several academic medical centers are out sick with Covid-19, said Janis Orlowski, chief health care officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges, in a statement.

In Washington state, hospitals are stretched but not to the point of allowing workers to stay on the job without isolating first for five days, the state’s secretary of health, Umair Shah, told POLITICO last week. But that could change, he said. Staffing is precarious. “The next several weeks will be very difficult for our state,” he said.

Washington’s health centers are generally allowing staff that test positive to return after five days without a negative test, he said. Hospitals aren’t required to notify patients or other workers that a staffer recently tested positive, according to a state spokesperson.

Hospitals’ decision to not require a negative test before returning is partly due to the nationwide testing shortage, according to Elnahal, the CEO of the Newark hospital, which doesn’t require workers to test negative before returning after a five-day isolation.

“We have long lines outside of our testing clinic for patients and families, and if I had to disproportionately keep testing my employees to bring them back to work, that would compromise access to testing for the community,” he said.

Governors including those in Arkansas, Georgia, Ohio, Oregon and Pennsylvania have called up hundreds of National Guard to assist hospitals, though they aren’t necessarily medically trained, according to a National Guard spokesperson.

Elnahal said his hospital had requested federal support, mostly from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, though he is doubtful the program will make a meaningful impact. “We are not optimistic that enough people will be available from the federal government,” he said last week.

On Monday, Elnahal said FEMA is likely to send his hospital 10 staff, exceeding his expectations. “Everything helps,” he said.

Some hospitals are choosing not to reduce isolation periods for staff, even when worker shortages are leading to cancellations of procedures. Since December, University of Michigan Health has postponed more than 200 surgeries due to a lack of available beds and staff shortages, according to a spokesperson.

Maggie Frye, an associate professor of sociology at University of Michigan, said the shortage forced the hospital to postpone her 5-month-old son’s heart surgery, though it was later rescheduled and proceeded, after much uncertainty.

The spokesperson said Michigan Health has maintained its 10-day isolation requirement for employees who test positive. It doesn’t plan to change its policy.

“Speaking only as a mother, I was relieved to hear this,” Frye said. “It would be very dangerous for my son to be exposed to Covid during his recovery.”

Darius Tahir contributed to this report.