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How often are Rhode Island health care facilities using COVID-positive workers?

File image: A new staffing mandate in Rhode Island nursing homes is scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, 2022. (WJAR)
File image: A new staffing mandate in Rhode Island nursing homes is scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, 2022. (WJAR)
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A controversial change in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention policy means Rhode Island health care workers infected with COVID-19 can remain at work -- under certain circumstances. So, NBC 10 News checked in with local hospitals and nursing homes to find out how often it's actually happening locally.

"A couple facilities in our state did use COVID-positive workers due to a total disaster scenario, where there simply were no other staff to take care of patients," said Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician with the Brown School of Public Health. "It certainly wouldn't be recommended in normal circumstances."

Eleanor Slater Hospital, a state-run facility, had to use COVID-positive employees on two recent days due to a crisis-level staffing shortage.

"Due to staffing constraints, and consistent with the recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Rhode Island Department of Health, Eleanor Slater Hospital utilized two asymptomatic Covid-positive staff members on Saturday, Jan. 1, and three on Monday, Jan. 3," the Department of Behavior Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH) said on its website.

NBC 10 also learned that an unidentified nursing home was forced to use one COVID-19 positive staff member one day last week when staffing levels reached the crisis stage.

"There was one facility, that one day a week ago, used a COVID-positive nurse, to work on a COVID unit," said John Gage, CEO of the Rhode Island Healthcare Association, which represents the state's 80 nursing homes.

Gage said another 15 nursing homes statewide were at a contingency level of staffing, meaning they can ask COVID-19 positive workers to return after 5 days of isolation, with or without a negative test.

"No one could have anticipated the depth of the staffing challenge that we find ourselves in right now. And this surge of omicron just is like nothing we've seen. I mean, just a one-two punch. A perfect storm," Gage said.

Eleanor Slater later reported new COVID cases in patients, leading to questions about whether workers who came in while infected caused an outbreak -- something BHDDH denies.

"Questions have been raised as to whether the small number of asymptomatic staff who worked on two separate days caused the Covid cases at the hospital. The asymptomatic Covid-positive workers are not connected to the Covid outbreak. Asymptomatic staff who worked on January 1st and 3rd were only in the areas with Covid-positive patients, with one exception. In the one instance, an asymptomatic staff member did work with patients who did not have Covid, however there have been no Covid-positive cases reported in the area where this work took place," BHDDH said on its website.

What about other local hospitals? Care New England, which operates Kent Hospital and Women & Infants, told NBC 10 it has no plans to use COVID-positive workers. Lifespan, which operates Rhode Island Hospital, said there were no COVID-positive employees working last week.

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