After nearly two years of fighting on the front lines, Mayra Castaneda says it feels like her health and the health of other healthcare workers is the last priority.
Castaneda works in California, where the state's health department says staff members with asymptomatic COVID-19 can continue working.
“It makes us all angry the fact that this is how things are being done now," she said.
Castaneda is an ultrasound technologist at St. Francis Medical Center. She was positive for COVID-19 when the state issued the new guidelines.
"It was like, 'Well do I show up to work, do I not show up to work, do I stay home,'" Castaneda wondered.
California isn’t alone. Hospitals in Rhode Island and Arizona have also told employees that they can stay on the job if they have mild symptoms or none at all.
Castaneda believes the policy will actually have a negative effect on staff shortages.
“It’s clear we’re becoming short-staffed because we’re not staying away as we should," Castaneda said.
Sandy Reding, president of the California Nurses Association, says healthcare workers need more protection, not less.
"We need to preserve the nurses at the bedside as we are, and not infuse more COVID into our hospitals so we can have more cross-contamination, infections and death. It just didn’t make sense at all," Reding said. “It’s very disheartening for the frontline nurses and other healthcare workers to think that we are going to have to work side-by-side with COVID-positive coworkers.”
The California Department of Public Health defends its decision with the following statement:
We are extremely grateful to all the health care workers across California who have worked tirelessly over the course of the pandemic in support of Californians impacted by COVID-19. While vaccines continue to protect against serious illness, hospitals are reaching capacity and staffing shortages are making it difficult to treat those who need essential care. Given those conditions, the department is providing temporary flexibility to help hospitals and emergency services providers respond to an unprecedented surge and staffing shortages. Hospitals have to exhaust all other options before resorting to this temporary tool. Facilities and providers using this tool, should have asymptomatic COVID-19 positive workers interact only with COVID-19 positive patients, to the extent possible, and ensure the workers are always wearing N-95 respirators.
Karl Minges, the Interim Dean of the University of New Haven’s School of Health Sciences, says the decision seems confusing.
“So the first reaction is one of surprise, I think, that it’s coming to this," Minges said. “But with some guardrails, I think it’s the most sensible thing to do at this point in time to avoid a situation where we have to ration care and provide care to the patient that’s most likely to make it.”
Those guardrails include vaccines and making sure the staffing plan is temporary. However, Minges notes that the plan is not health-proof.
“Yes, it is very risky to be doing this in certain areas of a hospital. For example, the NICU, the ICU, any chemotherapy units," Minges said.
“Part of the guidelines was attempt to keep these COVID-positive healthcare workers taking care of COVID patients. That’s impossible. I’m throughout the entire hospital taking care of COVID and non-COVID," Castaneda said.
Castaneda says the expectations are not set in reality. She believes healthcare workers are not being prioritized nearly enough.
“There’s people that are just saying I give up in the healthcare industry, I’m done. And that worries me because I see it and I hear it every day," Castaneda said. “But then when your life doesn’t matter, how can you save lives when your own life doesn’t matter to anyone else.”