Nurses' Union Rips State Plan Allowing Asymptomatic COVID-Positive Health Care Workers to Return to Work

“We will fight back if they put these guidelines in place,” said Sandy Reding, President, California Nurses Association

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New guidance from the California Department of Health (CDPH) intended to ease a critical staff shortage at hospitals is facing immediate backlash from nurses and most San Diego health care providers.

The guidelines, announced Saturday, are effective January 8 through February 1, 2022 and temporarily adjusts the return to work criteria for Health Care Personnel (HCP).

According to the temporary guidance, HCP’s who test positive for COVID-19 and “are asymptomatic may return to work immediately without isolation and without testing.”

The plan drew immediate criticism from the state's largest nursing union.

“We will fight back if they put these guidelines in place,” said Sandy Reding, President, California Nurses Association.

The CNA represents more than 7,000 nurses and other health care workers in the San Diego area. Some are registered nurses, and others are technicians, nursing assistants, food service workers, and housekeeping, according to a CNA spokesperson.

"We vehemently disagree with the California Department of Health’s new recommendation. We think it’s just going to negatively impact hospital workers as well as our patients and we’re not going to stand for it, we’re going to push back,” said Reding.

Under the temporary guidelines, HCP’s must wear an N95 respirator mask for source control.

“These HCP’s should preferably be assigned to work with COVID-19 positive patients,” according to a release issued by the CDPH.

“Facilities implementing this change must have made every attempt to bring in additional registry or contract staff and must have considered modifications to non-essential procedures,” according to the CDPH release.

It turns out many health care systems in San Diego don’t plan to follow the temporary guidance.

“We are not following that option,” said John Cihomsky, spokesperson for Sharp Health.

Cihomsky said there are currently around 700 Sharp Health employees out with Covid right now, both symptomatic and asymptomatic.

“Throughout the pandemic, Sharp’s goal has always been to implement policies that keep employees, patients and visitors as safe as possible. We have reviewed the new state order and determined that for everyone’s health and safety, we will not ask Sharp team members who have tested positive for COVID-19 and are asymptomatic to stay at work,” said Cihomsky in a statement.

Spokespersons for Sharp, UC San Diego Health and Rady Children’s say asymptomatic workers can return to work after five days.

“UC San Diego Health is not changing its guidelines at this time. We have a number of overlapping measures to protect our employees and patients from the virus. If asymptomatic, health care workers may return to work at day five with a negative antigen test OR return to work at 10 days without test. KN95s, at minimum, are required until day 10,” said Jacqueline Carr, Executive Director of Communications and Media Relations.

Rady Children’s hospital says it’s asymptomatic staff would not be told to return to work and provided the following statement to NBC 7:

“Rady Children’s is currently following the CDC guidelines for contingency staffing and are returning Health Care Personnel (HCP) to work in five days if asymptomatic. The hospital continually monitors its staffing and service indicators and has plans and processes in place should it become necessary to move to the CDC’s crisis level mitigation strategy.”

According to a Rady Children’s spokesperson, the hospital is averaging between 18-35 Covid positive staff and physicians a day, with around 25% being asymptomatic.

“We are not doing this as we feel it is an unsafe practice. And we will not do this unless we are in a true disaster situation, such as that New York was in,” said Janice Collins, Senior Director Public Relations at Scripps Health, in response to the temporary state guidelines.

Collins said 12.19% of Scripps overall workforce (outpatient clinics and hospitals) called out on unscheduled time off Monday, many of them with Covid. 

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Palomar Health says it cannot require workers to return immediately, "as only they know how they are feeling."

“The new rules will make getting our employees back to work more efficient. We had 30 employees cleared for work today who were previously out due to Covid protocols. In the past five days we’ve had 29 staff test positive for Covid. No telling how the new rules will affect those numbers,” said Derryl Acosta, Senior Manager, Marketing & Communications at Palomar Health.

A spokesperson for Paradise Valley and Alvarado said they would, in fact, follow CDPH guidance.

“Both Paradise Valley Hospital and Alvarado Hospital are doing the best we can to maintain optimal service to our communities during this latest surge of the pandemic. We address staffing needs as they arise, using the guidelines suggested in the CDPH “All facilities Letter” 21-08.7 released this past weekend. But we also utilize our own judgement in evaluating each situation, keeping in mind what is best for patient- and staff-safety,” said Benjamin Macapugay, Regional Manager, Marketing & Communications for the hospitals.

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