Health system allows COVID-positive employees to work

Coronavirus

(NewsNation Now) — An Arizona health system facing a critical staffing crisis moved to allow employees positive with COVID-19 to continue working.

Dignity Health updated its policies allowing workers who are mildly symptomatic or asymptomatic to continue offering care to patients at its hospitals and facilities while wearing N95 masks.

Omicron has been labeled by health officials as highly contagious. So the question is whether or not allowing employees with COVID-19 to continue working could really be safe, even with the CDC’s guidance.

“I see this as a choice that had to be made, certainly not the choice we would have liked to make, but one that we have to make under these conditions,” said Mercedes Carnethon, Ph.D., infectious disease and epidemiology expert at Northwestern University, during an appearance on “Morning in America”.

Because of anticipation of the continued spread of the omicron variant, Dignity Health officials said they have enacted the “third tier” of the federal guidelines for health care workers with the coronavirus.

The CDC’s latest guidance does support this move in the event of severe staffing shortages.

“These guidelines allow COVID-19-positive health care personnel who are asymptomatic or improving with mild symptoms to work without a quarantine period,” Dignity Health officials said in a statement. 

“I think this is one of the big challenges that we’re facing in the middle of this epidemic,” said Carnethon. “Certainly, we would have wanted to pull these people out of circulation, so that they didn’t have to work. But here’s where the balance comes in between, you know, what we’re facing with the coronavirus pandemic and the ordinary illnesses that people show up with in the hospital.”

“We noted last year excess risk of death from all causes,” she said. “And that’s in part because people aren’t seeking help. And in this case, right now, with this highly infectious variant, there aren’t providers available to help.”

The N95 masks employees are required to wear should not only protect from aerosols being inhaled, but should protect the patients from aerosols being exhaled.

“I wouldn’t have significant concerns about transmission,” Carnethon said. “Obviously, you know, not having providers who are positive would make it a great deal safer, but we do now have the tools to try to keep this as safe as possible.”

The omicron variant spreads even more easily than other coronavirus strains, and has already become dominant in many countries. It also more easily infects those who have been vaccinated or had previously been infected by prior versions of the virus.

“Ideally, if these health care providers are vaccinated and boosted, their course of illness should be relatively shorter,” Carnethon said. “And so perhaps that it only turns into a few days where these asymptomatic providers are there and facing any degree of risk whatsoever.”

Watch the full interview with Dr. Mercedes Carnethon in the video player at the top of the page.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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