California will allow some health workers with COVID-19 to continue working. One top nurse says it’s a ‘disaster waiting to happen’.

Two intensive care nurses put on personal protective equipment outside an Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit
Two intensive care nurses put on personal protective equipment at Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center in California on September 2 2021. APU GOMES/AFP/Getty Images
  • Health workers in California say new rules allowing them to work with COVID-19 are ‘dangerous’. 
  • Health professionals with COVID-19 who don’t have symptoms can work without testing or isolation.
  • The new rules came in effect Saturday and will last at least February 1, health officials said.

Allowing some health professionals who have tested positive for COVID-19 to continue working could put patients in “grave danger”, a leading nurse has warned, after new California guidance said health workers may return to work if they don’t have symptoms.

“It’s a major disaster waiting to happen,” Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, president of the California Nurses Association (CNA) told local news channel KCRA3. “I think it’s callous and it’s putting our patients and ourselves in grave danger,” she said.

The new protocol, announced Saturday by the California Department of Health, means health workers exposed to COVID-19 or those who have the virus with no symptoms may return to work “immediately” – without the need for a test or quarantine – and wear an N95 mask. The move comes in response to a severe staffing shortage in the state, amid an upsurge in the omicron variant.

Asymptomatic health professionals who had tested positive for COVID-19 should “preferably be assigned to work with COVID positive patients”, the Californian health officials said, adding that this might not be possible in areas of “extreme” staff shortages or in places such as the emergency room where it wasn’t possible to know who had COVID-19. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), health professionals with COVID-19 may work without restrictions if “asymptomatic” or “mildly symptomatic” as part of a staff shortage “crisis” plan.

In “conventional” situations, health workers who had tested positive for COVID-19 and had no symptoms or mild symptoms should isolate for 10 days or seven days with a negative test, the CDC says.

Insider reported Thursday that some nurses with COVID-19 in the US are being forced to work, even with symptoms.

The California Department of Health said the measures were due to “critical staffing shortages”. Sites that implement this change must have made “every attempt” to bring on additional staff and considered “modifications to non-essential procedures”, it said.

But the CNA and the Service Employees International Union California (SEIU) have called for the guidance, which came into effect Saturday until at least February 1, to be rescinded.

Getting rid of isolation and sending asymptomatic or exposed health workers to work “guaranteed preventable transmission, infections, hospitalizations, and death,” the CNA said in a press release Saturday.

Bob Schoonover, a president at the SEIUC, said of the guidance: “Allowing employers to bring back workers who may still be infectious is one of the worst ideas I have heard during this pandemic, and that’s really saying something,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Cathy Kennedy, another president of the CNA, said in a statement Saturday that sending nurses and other health care workers back to work while infected was “dangerous”.  “If we get sick, who will be left to care for our patients and community?” she said.

Robert Siegel, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University, told the Chronicle, that there might be situations where “we might want to relax some of the testing requirements because staffing situations are dire, but in general, we should be more cautious.”

“It’s clear that a great deal of transmission occurs from asymptomatic people,” he said.