January 18, 2022

California Updates Quarantine Policy For Healthcare Workers Amid Surge

California Updates Quarantine Policy For Healthcare Workers Amid Surge

California is currently experiencing the highest number of cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, which has prompted some new changes to the state’s policies in the workplaces. 

Instead of just following the CDC’s updated COVID guidelines, California’s workplace policies are enacted by Cal/OSHA, the California Division of Safety and Health. Some of the changes affect how employees at workplaces are to be tested if an outbreak occurs at work, who needs to isolate after being exposed, and how vaccination status comes into play. And of course, the fact that COVID-positive nurses can just continue working their shifts. (Yes, really).

Here’s a more detailed breakdown of the changes, especially for healthcare workers. 

What the New CA COVID Rules Say

Some of the most recent general workplace changes—put into effect Jan 14, 2022, and in effect until April 14, 2022—stipulate that: 

  • If there’s an outbreak in the workplace, the employer has to pay for COVID-19 testing for all employees, vaccinated or not. The tests may be self-administered, but it must be observed and read via telehealth or by the employer. 
  • Masks are required in all indoor locations, including schools.
  • Cloth masks are highly frowned upon. If they are worn, they must be tight-fitting and thick enough that light won’t show through them. 
  • Anyone exposed to COVID-19 (even if they are fully vaccinated and asymptomatic) should be sent home with full pay OR wear a mask and stay six feet away from other people for two weeks. (Are all the nurses reading this laughing right now?) However, big catch with this one, because employers also aren’t obligated to pay sick leave for COVID, so not really sure how this actually works in real life. 
  • Anyone who tests positive should quarantine for 5 days. 
  • If transportation is a part of employment, fully vaccinated individuals must now wear a mask. 

CA COVID Rules for Nurses

While the general workplace rules are supposed to be in effect for most businesses, healthcare workers and emergency personnel, of course, also have their own set of rules. Nurses working in California will need to follow the rules that fall under AFL 21-08 set by the California Department of Public Health. 

The rules state that thanks to Omicron taking over and staffing challenges, the CDPH is “temporarily adjusting” the return-to-work criteria from January 8, 2022, through February 1, 2022. In other words, the need to keep hospitals staffed trump the “regular” rules. 

Here’s what temporary rules specify for nurses. And prepare yourself, because it’s a lot: 

  • Any healthcare worker who tests positive for SARS-CoV-2 and is not showing any symptoms can continue working without isolating and without any additional testing required.  
  • Any healthcare worker who has been directly exposed to COVID-19 and remains asymptomatic can also return to work immediately without any quarantine or testing required.

The only stipulations for healthcare workers who are either exposed or test positive is that they must continue to wear an N95 respirator while working and if possible, only work with COVID-19 positive patients. Additionally, whenever possible, the guidelines also advise any actively-infected but asymptomatic healthcare workers to keep away from their coworkers as much as possible, such as “using a separate break room and restroom.” Because every hospital definitely has that luxury available.  

These rules are in effect until February 1, 2022, at which time, the “regular” rules could go back into effect (unless, of course, another set of emergency temporary guidelines are passed). The normal rules stipulate: 

  • Any vaccinated healthcare worker who tests positive should isolate for 5 days and return to work with a negative viral test. Without a test, they need to isolate for 10 days. However, if there is a critical staffing need, that timeline can be bumped under 5 days with a negative test. 
  • Any unvaccinated healthcare worker who tests positive should isolate for 7 days and return to work with a negative viral test. Without a test, they need to isolate for 10 days. However, if there is a critical staffing need, that timeline can be bumped under 5 days with a negative test.
  • For simple exposures, vaccinated workers have no restrictions if they test negative upon identification and again after 5-7 days. Unvaccinated workers should isolate for 7 days and get a negative test upon returning to work. Although again, both of those restrictions fly out the window with critical staffing shortages, in which case all that’s needed is a negative test upon identification of exposure and again at 5-7 days. 

It’s also worth noting that the guidelines specify that “asymptomatic” also includes “mildly symptomatic with improving symptoms.” Yes, for real. 

What Nurses are Saying About The New Rules

As you can imagine, California nurses have some thoughts about the new guidelines for healthcare workers. 

The California Nurses Association criticized the guidelines, as did the American Nurses Association (ANA). 

A full press release on the National Nurses United website reads:

“The California Nurses Association (CNA) condemns the decision by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) to let asymptomatic health care workers who test positive for Covid-19 or have been exposed to the virus and are asymptomatic return to work immediately without isolation or testing.

‘Governor Newsom and our state’s public health leaders are putting the needs of health care corporations before the safety of patients and workers,’ said CNA President Cathy Kennedy, RN. “We want to care for our patients and see them get better – not potentially infect them. Sending nurses and other health care workers back to work while infected is dangerous. If we get sick, who will be left to care for our patients and community?”

Eliminating the isolation time and sending asymptomatic or exposed health care workers to work will guarantee more preventable transmission, infections, hospitalizations, and death. By doing all this, Newsom and CDPH are in effect guaranteeing more transmission.

“We must protect patients and keep nurses healthy and safe on the front lines,” said Kennedy.

Nurses demand that CDPH rescind its guidance, which is in effect from Jan. 8, 2022, until Feb. 1, 2022.”

California Nurses Association President Zenei Triunfo-Cortez also told KCRA3 News that the guidelines are a “major disaster” waiting to happen. "I think it's callous and it's putting our patients and ourselves in grave danger,” she added. 

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