COVID-positive hospital employees can work amid staff shortages, North Dakota governor says. Is it safe?

Rachel Grumman Bender
·4 min read

With hospitals in North Dakota reaching 100 percent capacity as the number of coronavirus cases in the state continue to climb, Gov. Doug Burgum approved a surprising solution to the staffing shortages: allowing asymptomatic health care workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 to continue working in hospitals' COVID-19 units.

North Dakota hospitals are offering a surprising solution to staff shortages as COVID-19 infections rise throughout the state. (Photo: Getty Images)
North Dakota hospitals are offering a surprising solution to staff shortages as COVID-19 infections rise throughout the state. (Photo: Getty Images)

In a statement issued on Nov. 9, Gov. Burgum said that “our hospitals are under enormous pressure now,” adding in a same-day tweet that COVID-19 cases now make up 14 percent of hospitalizations. The governor followed up with another tweet that said: “As requested by hospitals to address staffing, a State Health Order will allow asymptomatic, COVID-positive health care workers to work in the COVID unit of a licensed facility, so long as precautions are taken as recommended by the CDC.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines on mitigating staff shortages that have reached “crisis” level includes allowing health care workers with “suspected or confirmed COVID-19 who are well enough and willing to work but have not met all Return to Work Criteria to work,” while restricting their contact with severely immunocompromised patients.

Gov. Burgum explained in his statement that the state is “directing additional rapid testing resources to health care workers to help identify cases more quickly and get staff back to caring for patients.”

Several people voiced their concerns over the decision on social media, including one Twitter user who wrote: “This all but guarantees more doctors and nurses will catch COVID and spread it to their patients. Your hospitalization rate will double in 2 weeks.”

However, some experts say it’s not as risky as it might sound, given the precautions, including wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), that health care workers already follow. “It’s hard to process initially, but it really does make sense given the need they have,” Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient safety officer at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. “The benefit here is so huge because of the need for personnel.”

Gonsenhauser says that hospitals in North Dakota are likely “completely stretched.” In general, he adds, “When we start expanding beyond our normal capacity in hospitals, it’s a really difficult challenge to meet, particularly for nursing staff. That’s what’s really driving this decision.” He added: “It’s one of those risk-benefit situations that we make all the time” in hospitals.

While Gov. Burgum noted in his statement that hospitals have hired traveling nurses from other areas and suspended elective surgeries, it isn’t enough “amid heavy patient counts.”

With the state’s new protocol, asymptomatic health care workers would be working only in COVID-19 units. “So the risk to the patient is very low,” Gonsenhauser said. “And so long as the testing is accurate — and there's no reason to believe it’s not — the risk to the provider who tested positive for COVID … is likely not really significantly increased … as a result of continuing to work.”

Dr. Purvi Parikh, an allergist and immunologist with the Allergy and Asthma Network, agrees, telling Yahoo Life: “If they are only in COVID-19 wards, the risks to patients are low. However, they are risking infecting other staff and coworkers that may not be infected yet, especially in hospital common areas.”

Parikh says this unprecedented move serves as a ”grim reminder that we are heading for a rough winter if we cannot contain cases.”

She notes the country is in a “very difficult situation” as several areas are “surging” with COVID-19 cases. “It’s putting a stress on the health care workers and resources [since] hospitals can’t afford to have critical staff out for minimum two weeks at a time,” says Parikh. “Nobody wants to take these measures. But if all health care workers are out, there’s nobody to take care of the patients either. So I am sure it was not an easy decision to make.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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