Lance Frye

Dr. Lance Frye

OKLAHOMA CITY — Health care workers with active cases of COVID-19 can continue to work in short-staffed hospitals and long-term care facilities as long as they’re not showing any symptoms, state health officials said Tuesday.

Dr. Lance Frye, the state’s interim health commissioner, said the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long said it’s OK for asymptomatic COVID-positive essential workers to go to work if they’re only going to be exposed to other individuals with the virus.

He said health care facilities should only utilize asymptomatic COVID-19 positive staff as a last resort — when they’re experiencing critical staffing needs and if they can work in an area where other people have COVID-19.

Travis Kirkpatrick, a deputy commissioner of health, said not requiring asymptomatic doctors and nurses to quarantine after a positive test will particularly benefit rural hospitals. Those facilities may struggle to maintain staffing levels as providers fall ill to the deadly virus.

It shouldn’t be used in “normal circumstances,” he said.

“We don’t see this as like some sort of bright, shiny thing that is a win-win for everyone,” Kirkpatrick said. “These are hard decisions, and we’re willing to go on a limb and make some of these decisions if it finds a way to support the ongoing operations of some of these really necessary care facilities.”

Krista Roberts, CEO of St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, said St. Mary’s would use asymptomatic employees as a last resort.

“St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center will exhaust all other options before implementing the guidance as outlined,” Roberts said Tuesday in an emailed statement. “We take our responsibility as healthcare providers seriously and are constantly evaluating what is most safe for patients, employees and the community. Asymptomatic staff would only be allowed to work in patient care areas with already confirmed COVID patients. This option would only be implemented when we have entered Crisis Standards of Care and would be used to the minimal extent possible.

“We would like to ask for the community’s assistance to take personal responsibility to change behaviors that will help flatten the curve and reduce the demand on the healthcare system.”

Other medical professionals across the state, though, panned the plan as “insane” and “reckless.”

Dr. Scott Michener, chief medical officer at Comanche County Memorial Hospital, said his hospital was struggling Tuesday. They have no available beds. The intensive care unit is at 115%-120% overcapacity. They are out of ICU nurses. Their ICU is overflowing into the emergency and recovery rooms, and the facility has stopped in-patient elective surgeries for the week.

Now, the state Health Department is encouraging asymptomatic providers to continue to work to alleviate staffing shortages, he said.

“To me, that seems like the most insane thing,” he said. “You won’t mandate a mask, but you’re going to let COVID-positive health care providers work. It seems like the logic is backwards.”

Shelly Wells, president of Oklahoma Nurses Association, said intentionally exposing people to COVID-19 jeopardizes not only the safety of other health care workers, but also patients who expect they’ll be treated by a healthy nurse or doctor.

“This reckless recommendation is likely to cause further deterioration of an already dismal nurse staffing shortage,” she said. “Healthy nurses will be hesitant to work in areas where they must share unprotected restrooms and other areas with staff members who are sick.”

Wells, a clinical nurse specialist, who lives in Wagoner County, said facilities aren’t required to notify patients if their caregiver has an active case of COVID-19

And, she said there are no requirements for hospitals or long-term care facilities to disclose what steps they took to avoid the “last resort.”

In addition, there’s no way of knowing how many facilities are using COVID-positive health care workers because the state Department of Health hasn’t formalized a reporting mechanism, she said.

“It’s just really unreasonable to ask an asymptomatic COVID-19 positive nurse to work when there are other ways to mitigate the spread of the virus … before resorting to this very last minute, dangerous way of staffing,” Wells said.

Jane Nelson, executive director of Oklahoma Nurses Association, said the state Health Department is sending “a mixed message” about quarantining when they’ll telling everyone to stay home when sick — except health care workers.

“They need to be home quarantining like the rest of the public,” she said.

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Stecklein is CNHI Oklahoma Capitol Bureau Chief for CNHI News Service publication newspapers. She can be reached at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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