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COVID: Unions Push Back On State Guidelines Allowing Health Care Workers With Coronavirus To Return To Work

SAN RAFAEL (KPIX) -- New guidelines allowing health care workers across the state who test positive for coronavirus to come back to work under certain conditions are getting pushback from unions, as public health officials try to weigh what's best for patients and staff during the Omicron surge.

Hospital officials in the Bay Area haven't had to ask infected health care workers who are asymptomatic to return immediately, but new state guidelines would allow that to happen if needed.

Even with one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, health officials say about 5% of the population in Marin County is infected with COVID. That means health care settings including hospitals could face a shortage of workers, if they haven't already.

"We're seeing staff shortages in multiple sectors of essential response like ambulance crews, long term care facilities, our hospitals and clinics are all experiencing stress," said Marin County public health officer Dr. Matt Willis.

Dr. Karen Shavelson is chief medical officer at Marin Health Medical Center, where they haven't had to implement the new order just yet, but is ready to make the call.

"I understand why the public is nervous about it, but we are too. But we don't have choices in some areas," said Dr. Shavelson.

The new guidelines would allow healthcare facilities to bring back infected asymptomatic workers immediately without isolation and re-testing.

"If you look at emergency services there's not a whole lot of choice if a big segment of your workers contract COVID. Just as we're seeing in the general public right now, it's the same thing in the health care system," said Dr. Shavelson.

The California Nurses Association is now demanding the state reverse its decision.

"Governor Newsom and our state's public health leaders are putting the needs of health care corporations before the safety of patients and workers," said a CNA spokesperson.

"The reason for the state policy is to try to keep essential workers on the front lines to offer the minimum standards of health care," said Dr. Willis.

Asymptomatic staff are required to wear N-95 masks and would be assigned to already infected patients to minimize chances of spread.

"We're doing everything we can to use COVID positive asymptomatic healthcare workers as a very last resort and in only areas where it would be emergency staffing and services," said Dr. Shavelson.

Willis and other health officials acknowledge this is a balancing act to address staff shortages and make sure acute care facilities can function during this latest wave of infections.

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