Oregon hospitals allow COVID-positive staffers back to work

Faced with staff shortages and increased patient burden, hospitals are taking advantage of relaxed CDC guidelines to bring back employees with mild COVID symptoms.

PORTLAND, Oregon — It’s been nearly two years since people opened their doors and windows every night to bang on pans, cheer and clap for primary care at the onset of COVID-19. It’s the kind of support that many carriers lack these days.

“We feel forgotten, devalued and abused,” said a Legacy Health nurse, who wishes to remain anonymous. “We are exhausted, working in unsafe conditions, understaffed and very low morale.”

Those feelings, the nurse told KGW, are being exaggerated by a new COVID guidance policy that Legacy Health shared with employees on Friday. It tells workers who test positive for COVID that they can return to work five days after their symptoms start, as long as their symptoms are mild enough to get under control with over-the-counter medications.

In short, employees who have COVID and are still symptomatic can now treat patients. With staff shortages, Legacy Health officials said it’s a no-win situation that prompted them to make a tough decision.

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“We’re increasing risk tolerance to care for the people who need it most,” said Dr. Seth Podolsky, senior vice president and chief medical officer of Legacy Health. “If we don’t do that, we as a region will end up in crisis situations much faster.”

As it stands, many health systems operate to unforeseen standards of care. According to updated guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, health workers with COVID who have no symptoms can return to work after seven days with a negative test — or in fewer days and without a test if there are staffing shortages. That is something many in the audience may not be aware of.

Currently, Legacy Health does not inform its patients that their caregivers may be at work while they are diagnosed with COVID.

“We currently have no plans to disclose, but that could change,” Podolsky said. “I don’t know of any other health systems in our region or country that do that because again, what we know about the highly transmissible nature of ommicron.”

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Legacy Health and hospitals across the country are facing staff shortages due to illness and understaffing. At the same time, they treat more people. In California, state health officials just announced that hospital workers who test positive for COVID but have no symptoms can continue to work. Rhode Island and Arizona have similar guidelines and the list is growing.

“Nurses are very concerned,” said Kevin Mealy, a spokesperson for the Oregon Nurses Association (ONA), a union that represents many nurses in Oregon, though not Legacy’s.

Mealy said the ONA’s concerns go far beyond Legacy’s policies. He pointed to the CDC’s guidelines that allow healthcare workers to return to work in less than seven days without a test. Those relaxed guidelines followed studies showing that while omicron can spread faster than other variants, it can also cause milder symptoms. However, Mealy noted that the CDC also found that even after five days, 31% of people diagnosed with COVID remained contagious.

“So if you take a nurse or primary care provider out as a caregiver to be part of the solution and change them as part of the problem as someone who now has COVID, you’ve really exponentially exacerbated the overall problem,” Nealy said. “There are more steps to limit exposure to health care personnel and prevent them from getting sick to begin with before requiring them to work sick.”

Nealy said those steps should include improving in-house testing and exposure reporting, limiting hospital visitors and requiring N95 masks or equivalent across the board.

“Hospitals are the places we go to get care and get better,” says Nealy. “We don’t want it to become a place where it continues the spread of COVID-19.”

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