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Rhode Island allows COVID-positive health care staff to work after firing unvaccinated workers

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NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images

Health care workers in Rhode Island who refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and did not comply with vaccine mandates were unceremoniously fired last year.

Now, Rhode Island is permitting those who have tested positive for COVID to continue working amid a shortage of health care workers.

What happened last year?

Hundreds of health care workers in the Ocean State were fired last year after refusing to comply with Democratic Gov. Dan McKee's COVID-19 vaccine mandate, WJAR-TV reported.

That meant hospitals, nursing homes, and home health care agencies lost critical staff members. State Sen. Jessica de la Cruz (R), in fact, has been sounding the alarm, saying the expulsion of highly skilled and trained health care workers from their jobs simply for not complying with a vaccine mandate has resulted in a "health care crisis."

What is going on now?

Administrators at the state-operated Eleanor Slater Hospital told employees in a memo last Friday they may continue to work if they have tested positive for COVID-19, so long as they are asymptomatic and wear an N95 face covering, the Providence Journal reported.

The policy aligns with updated guidance from the Rhode Island Department of Health.

On Dec. 31, RIDOH published updated work restrictions for health care personnel who work in hospitals and skilled nursing homes. The guidelines permit personnel to continue working, despite a COVID-19 infection, under crisis situations, which is defined as not having "enough staff to provide safe patient/resident care."

The guidelines permit "asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic" personnel to work.

In other words: After Rhode Island began firing unvaccinated health care personnel, the state encountered a staffing crisis (for example, in November, nursing homes across Rhode Island had more than 1,900 open jobs). Now, public health officials are allowing COVID-positive staffers to work because of the staffing crisis, thereby potentially further spreading the virus.

The policy flouts nearly all public health guidance over the last two years, which has said that anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 should isolate because they will spread the virus to other people if they do not.

What are officials saying?

The Rhode Island Department of Health is actually defending the policy.

RIDOH spokesman Joseph Wendelken told the Providence Journal the updated guidance is designed to reflect "a national change," citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recent update to isolation guidelines. He also painted people not vaccinated against COVID-19 as the true danger.

"An unvaccinated healthcare worker is at greater individual risk, given how many COVID-19 positive patients are in facilities," he told the Journal. "Additionally, someone who is vaccinated and who tested positive for COVID-19 has a much lower viral load, compared to someone who is COVID positive and unvaccinated. This means that the likelihood of transmission is much less."

"Rhode Island is implementing the CDC’s updated quarantine and isolation guidance for healthcare workers. States across the country are implementing this same approach," he added.

Does the policy reflect updated CDC guidance? Shockingly, yes. Rhode Island's updated policy for health care workers is the same as the CDC's updated policy for health care workers in crisis staffing situations.

According to WPRI-TV, at least two health care facilities in Rhode Island have already used COVID-positive personnel.

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