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Rhode Island Says Hospital Staff With COVID Can Go To Work Amid Staffing Shortage

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medical staff member wearing a mask

A hospital in Rhode Island is allowing positive COVID members of their staff to return to work amid the concerns of staffing issues after hospitals fired unvaccinated healthcare workers in compliance with the statewide mandate.

Eleanor Slater Hospital in Cranston, which is run by the state, has been experiencing a staff shortage crisis due to the ongoing pandemic and healthcare workers refusing to get vaccinated.

Employees at the hospital were told in a memo that vaccinated staff “with mild symptoms” can return to work if called in.

Rhode Island is no longer requiring all healthcare workers with COVID-19 to isolate.  

The Rhode Island Department of Health updated their guidelines in December to allow healthcare facilities who are experiencing an overwhelmingly low amount of staff to require no isolation period for workers with “asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic” cases.

The Department stands by their decision, preferring to hire COVID positive workers instead of rehiring unvaccinated workers.

Rhode Island Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken told The Providence Journal that unvaccinated healthcare workers are at a “greater individual risk” given the number of positive COVID patients in medical facilities.

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Wendelken added that a vaccinated person who tests positive for the virus carries a lower viral-load compared to an unvaccinated person who tests positive.

Hospitals in Rhode Island that choose to call in staff members who have COVID are required to notify the Department of Health and post information on its website alerting patients, families, and visitors that COVID positive employees are working.

Wendelken said that the hospital has had one asymptomatic staffer who recently tested positive at the facility, with another worker on site the following day.

“These people on Saturday and Sunday were masked, and facility administrators communicated that they would try to have them only caring for COVID-19 positive patients,” Wendelken said.

Wendelken also said that the Respiratory and Rehabilitation Center of Rhode Island, a nursing home in Coventry, was using asymptomatic staff that tested positive.

Rhode Island is suffering serious healthcare staffing shortages.

According to John Gage, president of the Rhode Island Health Association, nursing homes are understaffed by as much as 20%.

"Rhode Island nursing homes are facing the fight of their lives and the future of long-term care for Rhode Island's most vulnerable citizens stands in the balance," Gage revealed.

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With the emergence of the Omicron variant, COVID cases are rising at an alarming rate, resulting in hospitals across the country becoming overwhelmed.

University of Maryland Capital Region Health announced that it was activating emergency protocols due to the sharp increase in cases that have swamped emergency departments and led to staff shortages.

In New York and New Jersey, 31 of CityMD clinics closed temporarily to "preserve our ability to staff our sites.”

In Rhode Island, there have been 100 hospitalizations on the week of November 6. During the week of December 25, the numbers doubled to 243.

Lynn Blais, the president of the United Nurses and Allied Professionals union, said her organization is “unequivocally opposed to the state’s decision” on bringing back COVID positive workers. 

“First and foremost, we believe that it’s critically important to ensure a healthy workforce in which health care workers are not spreading the virus to other workers and, more importantly, to at-risk patients who are susceptible to the most harmful effects of the virus,” Blais argued.

Blais continued, saying healthcare workers who previously tested positive should only be allowed to come back to work after five days if they are asymptomatic, have a negative test result, and wear a mask.

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Nia Tipton is a writer living in Brooklyn. She covers pop culture, social justice issues, and trending topics. Follow her on Instagram.