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L.A. Hospitals Can Ask COVID-Positive Staff To Keep Working

Two masked hospital employees wearing blue scrubs stand outside a Mobile Isolation Unit.
VA Hospital Employees stand outside of a Mobile Isolation Unit built to help the hospital deal with the COVID-19 surge in 2020.
(Chava Sanchez/LAist)
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As the omicron variant continues to infect tens of thousands of Angelenos each day, hospital administrators are weighing whether to ask staff infected with COVID-19 who are asymptomatic to work.

More than 3,900 patients are currently hospitalized in L.A. County with COVID-19. State models predict that by Jan. 20, the number will surpass 8,300 — more than double what we’re seeing now.

Hospitals are already struggling to stay adequately staffed, with some asking the state to send the National Guard or travel nurses to fill gaps.

Hospital staff reported the highest proportion of COVID-19 cases in L.A. County, compared with other health facilities such as nursing homes. Almost 200 hospital staff tested positive between Dec. 26 and Jan.1, the most recent data available. That number has surely ballooned during the dramatic increase in cases over the past 10 days.

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In response to the shortages, the state health department on Saturday issued new guidance to hospitals and nursing homes: Workers who are infected but have no symptoms may immediately return to work without isolation or additional testing, as well as those who have been exposed. The new guidelines remain in effect until Feb. 1.

The guidelines say hospitals should exhaust all other options first, and positive health workers should only be assigned to COVID-19 patients. The workers are required to wear N95 masks.

It’s unclear how many L.A. hospitals are asking asymptomatic health workers to continue to provide care.

A representative from St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood said in a statement that “nurses who fall under this criteria may choose to return to work or follow the guidelines for sick leave as set forth in their nursing contract.” The representative could not provide the number of nurses who “have chosen to return to work.”

Other hospitals are waiting to decide. The L.A. County Department of Health Services, which runs four hospitals and 24 health centers, said in a statement that it has “not adopted or issued an official policy containing the January 8th California Department of Public Health guidelines ... Health care workers who test positive and are asymptomatic are not being returned to work without testing prior to finishing their isolation.”

Nurses unions have pushed back against the controversial guidance, calling for it to be scrapped.

What questions do you have about the pandemic and health care?
Jackie Fortiér helps Southern Californians understand the pandemic by identifying what's working and what's not in our health response.