Healthcare workers are up in arms over a new U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) emergency guidance that allows healthcare workers who have had “higher risk exposures” to COVID, and even those infected with COVID to return to work after a five day quarantine as long as they’re asymptomatic.
Nurses groups are condemning the CDC’s guidance as “potentially dangerous” for both workers and patients.
Earlier this month, the CDC issued the alert to health care workers across the United States as a “contingency” plan for anticipated staffing shortages due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
The new recommendations seek “to enhance protection for healthcare personnel, patients, and visitors, and ensure adequate staffing in healthcare facilities,” according to the CDC’s guidance.
“Under conventional conditions, healthcare facilities can allow asymptomatic healthcare personnel with SARS-CoV-2 infection, regardless of vaccination status, to return to work after seven days and a negative test in accordance with CDC guidance,” the alert states.
But “under contingency conditions, healthcare personnel with SARS-CoV-2 infection can return to work at five days, if asymptomatic, with facilities having the option to include a negative viral test in the criteria to return to work,” according to the guidance.
Under crisis conditions, the CDC guidance continues, “such personnel can remain at work or can return to work at less than five days” even if they are “mildly symptomatic” without testing “as a last resort.”
“These healthcare personnel should wear a respirator or well-fitting facemask even when they are in non-patient care areas,” the CDC says. “Facilities should consider assigning these healthcare personnel to duties that do not include care of immunocompromised patients.”
Although early data suggest the Omicron infection is a milder infection than prior variants, the CDC is prepping for a surge in hospitalizations due to a potential “large increase in the number of infections” that could still result in “many people with severe outcomes requiring medical care in a short period.”
National Nurses United (NNU), the nation’s largest nurses’ union, put out a statement condemning the CDC’s emergency guidance, and warning that “shortening the isolation time for Covid-positive asymptomatic health care workers will only lead to more transmission.”
The group on Dec. 22 sent a letter to the CDC Director Rochelle Walensky urging the agency to “maintain current guidance regarding isolation after a positive SARS-CoV-2 test for health care workers, other frontline workers, and the general public.” The letter was signed by NNU President Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, RN.
“Weakening Covid-19 guidance now, in the face of what could be the most devastating Covid-19 surge yet, will only result in further transmission, illness, and death,” wrote Triunfo-Cortez. The RN argued that the rationale for reducing the isolation timeframe is about “maintaining business operations, revenues, and profits, without regard for science or the health of employees and the public.”
“Strengthening, not weakening protections, is the solution to the staffing crisis ” said Triunfo-Cortez. “The hospital industry manufactured the current staffing crisis by imposing unsafe working conditions on nurses. The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated long standing staffing issues when hospitals failed to protect us and our patients.”
The New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) also blasted the CDC’s guidance in a statement, saying it is “inconsistent with proven science, vague, and doesn’t provide definitions or explain standards at a time when decision-making for healthcare systems is critical.”
Healthcare worker infection rates are not being tracked and there’s no substantial evidence behind the CDC changing this guidance. But there is a healthcare staffing crisis the CDC cited as the justification for it.
The statement faulted the CDC for not taking “every measure which would reduce risk of healthcare worker infection,” including “requiring all healthcare workers be supplied with N95s, home testing kits, or requiring portable HEPA filtration in areas like break rooms.” The group said such measures “would protect healthcare workers and their patients.”
Not prioritizing the safety and retention of healthcare workers from the beginning of the pandemic is what exacerbated staffing shortages. That’s job #1 in pandemic response.
This guidance is only going to worsen the shortage and put our patients at risk. Our healthcare workers deserve better and our patients deserve better.
“For me, it’s not the fear of getting covid,” said one nurse on TikTok. “It’s the fear of spreading it to someone else. How are we supposed to care for patients safely?”
“From healthcare heroes to human sacrifice,” she noted. “Thanks for the updated guidelines, CDC. This country is at an all time low. When did the lives of your healthcare workers and their patients become so expendable?”