PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island’s state-run hospital system and a private nursing home have used workers who have recently tested positive for COVID-19, an extraordinary step two years into the pandemic as infections spike and staffing remains critically low.
The facilities are the Respiratory and Rehabilitation Center of Rhode Island in Coventry, a private nursing home, and the state-run Eleanor Slater Hospital.
By Monday, neither facility was at this crisis level of care anymore, Department of Health spokesman Joseph Wendelken said, noting the “fluid” status of a facility in a time of spiking COVID-19 infections in Rhode Island.
Respiratory and Rehabilitation Center of Rhode Island had been using one asymptomatic COVID-positive staff member due to staffing shortages, only in its COVID-positive unit, spokeswoman Lori Mayer said in an email.
Eleanor Slater Hospital had one asymptomatic staff person who recently tested positive on site Saturday, and one worker on Sunday, Wendelken said. They remained masked, and the hospital’s administrators “communicated that they would try to have them only caring for COVID-19 positive patients,” Wendelken said. There are no COVID-positive workers there Monday, Wendelken said.
The use of COVID-19 positive staff reignited worries among families.
“I’m disheartened and worried about the potential serious consequences of even one COVID transmission among the most at- risk populations at ESH,” Mary Sicco, whose husband Michael is an ALS patient on the Cranston campus, told the Globe. She added: “This is not a reassuring plan while administration leadership at Slater Hospital is under serious scrutiny and in flux.”
Sicco said she had not heard from Eleanor Slater Hospital about the crisis plans. The state General Assembly, which reconvenes this week, could use some of the windfall of federal COVID relief money to ensure safe staffing at Eleanor Slater Hospital, Sicco said.
The moves into “crisis” staffing came after the Rhode Island Department of Health on Friday updated its guidance to match recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. The state Department of Health’s guidance on using infected workers follows exactly what CDC says would be allowed in a “crisis” situation. Under the state’s non-crisis rules, Rhode Island health care workers with COVID-19 can return to work after isolating for five days if they are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic with improving symptoms. They also have to wear a well-fitting mask for another five days.
Under those CDC recommendations, in a “crisis” situation health care workers can continue to work without any isolation restrictions, even if they’re positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, and even if they have symptoms. Facilities should still prioritize workers based on whether they’re asymptomatic, mildly symptomatic, or have severe symptoms.
Now, Eleanor Slater Hospital said it has reached that “crisis” level and will need to use workers who have tested positive for COVID-19. The hospital, which has campuses in Burrillville and Cranston, said infected workers would have to use N95 masks, and only those with no symptoms or mild symptoms would be allowed to work. The hospital leadership said they would “ask” people with symptoms severe enough to interfere with their work to stay home, according to an internal memo.
Eleanor Slater Hospital’s roughly 200 patients have a range of mental and physical illnesses, from ALS patients to gunshot victims to people ordered by a criminal court to psychiatric treatment.
It has been under intense scrutiny for a year over the care it delivers for its patients and its mismanagement, financial and otherwise. It was the last hospital in the state to stop using unvaccinated staff, two months after the mandate that all health care workers get vaccinated against COVID-19.
United Nurses and Allied Professionals, a union with a local at Eleanor Slater Hospital, said it was “unequivocally opposed to the state’s decision allowing COVID-19 positive health care workers to work in Rhode Island health care facilities.”
“The UNAP believes that only health care workers who are asymptomatic, have a negative test, and continue to wear a mask should be returning to the workforce after 5 days,” Lynn Blais, its president, said in an email.
Current U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations don’t call for a negative test after isolating for five days in “contingency” situations, a level that is short of the crisis situations the two facilities in Rhode Island find themselves in. The Rhode Island Department of Health adopted the “contingency” guidance for all situations other than crisis situations, meaning people can return to work after isolating for five days whether or not they have a negative test at the end. The CDC has another category, “conventional,” which calls for 10 days of isolation or seven days if there’s a negative test at the end.
Health experts say the staffing situation is anything but conventional. But Blais said the policy of allowing COVID-positive workers could result in spreading the virus to co-workers and at-risk patients, and could actually make staffing shortages worse by sickening more workers.
Blais also called for all Rhode Islanders to get vaccinated and boosted to avoid hospitalizations.