Nurses are calling the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recent decision to shorten the amount of time healthcare workers need to isolate after testing positive for COVID-19 "unconscionable" and a move that likely will lead to more cases and even deaths.
Action needs to be taken to stop the spread of the virus, especially as the highly transmissible omicron variant makes its way across the country, leading to case surges and overflowing hospitals, National Nurses United President Zenei Triunfo-Cortez said.
"This is not the time to shorten the quarantine or the isolation period," Triunfo-Cortez said, warning that shortening isolation periods could endanger both patients and staff.
Under the revised guidelines, the CDC on Dec. 23 said asymptomatic healthcare workers with COVID-19 can return to work with a negative test after seven days, or sooner if there are staffing needs and that healthcare workers who have received their booster shots no longer need to quarantine after high-risk exposures to COVID-19.
"As the healthcare community prepares for an anticipated surge in patients due to omicron, CDC is updating our recommendations to reflect what we know about infection and exposure in the context of vaccination and booster doses. Our goal is to keep healthcare personnel and patients safe, and to address and prevent undue burden on our healthcare facilities," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a news release.
In pockets across the U.S., the National Guard has been called in to help staff hospitals overrun by COVID-19 surges, and healthcare providers are struggling to care for the influx of COVID-19 patients.
Dr. Katie Passaretti, vice president and enterprise chief epidemiologist at Atrium Health, said there's been a sharp uptick in COVID-19 cases.
"With that, we need to keep our hospitals running in a healthy way," Passaretti said.
She said the system is still going through the new guidelines and "figuring out how to apply them to the healthcare setting in a safe way."
"We do not make these decisions lightly. We are evaluating the newest recommendations from the CDC regarding quarantine and isolation for healthcare workers and the general population and will make changes where necessary to ensure the best care and safety of our patients, teammates and the community," Atrium Health said in an emailed statement.
The Cleveland Clinic said it is changing its quarantine and isolation standards for healthcare workers in light of the new CDC guidelines.
"To manage critical staffing challenges and ensure we are able to safely meet the needs of our patients as the omicron variant sweeps throughout our communities, Cleveland Clinic is changing its return-to-work policy for caregivers who have COVID-19 to be consistent with the CDC emergency guidance on mitigating staffing shortages and isolation and quarantine" Cleveland Clinic said in an emailed statement. "This guidance is temporary and only applies to certain locations as needed while we continue navigating this emergency situation."
Under the new policy, Cleveland Clinic healthcare workers who have been vaccinated or who have had COVID-19 in the past six months can be asked to return to work after five days if they are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms and no fever.
Cleveland, Ohio, where the Cleveland Clinic is based, has been one of the areas of the country hardest hit by the recent wave of COVID-19 cases. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on Dec. 20 sent 1,050 members of the Ohio National Guard to help the state's hospitals, most of whom were concentrated in Northeast Ohio.
Dr. Shereef Elnahal, president and CEO of University Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, said he welcomes the CDC's changes.
"The net effect is positive because we can bring asymptomatic healthcare workers back to work earlier than before. Our main capacity constraint right now is staffing," Elnahal said in emailed comments.
At this point, the omicron variant has proven to be less severe, Elnahal said. While hospitalizations are up, less than 10% require ICU-level care and many have a shorter length of stay, he said.
"So far I remain more concerned about low staffing and employees out of work stressing our hospital staff than COVID load," Elnahal said.
Matthew Cortland, a lawyer in Massachusetts, said the CDC is "essentially experimenting on healthcare workers" by telling them to return to work while positive for COVID-19 and potentially exposing their colleagues and patients to the virus.
Passaretti said nurses feel like they are being "sacrificed once again."
"The hospital industry is saying there's a staffing crisis. The staffing crisis was created by them. They manufactured it. They pushed nurses out of the practice because of unsafe working conditions," Passaretti said. "It's really distressing and mindboggling and unconscionable that the hospitals would do this."