Rhode Island went from firing unvaccinated health care workers to allowing the COVID-positive to work

One Rhode Island health care worker said, 'We have no choice'

After implementing a coronavirus mandate for health care workers this fall, Rhode Island has now opened an option for COVID-positive health care workers to continue working if their facility is facing a staffing crisis. 

"Also, facility administrators should be using their clinical judgment in making staffing decisions. For example, a facility may opt for a COVID-19 positive worker to only care for COVID-19 positive patients," Joseph Wendelken, a spokesperson from the department of health, told the Providence Journal on Saturday

A memo was sent to employees of state-run Eleanor Slater Hospital on Friday explaining that "those who are exposed or have a positive Covid test but are asymptomatic" can continue reporting to work "in crisis situations for staffing" if they wear N95 masks. 

A Colorado woman with stage 5 renal failure is scrambling to find a new hospital to perform a kidney transplant after a health system in the state denied the transplant due to her and her donor being unvaccinated against the coronavirus.  

A Colorado woman with stage 5 renal failure is scrambling to find a new hospital to perform a kidney transplant after a health system in the state denied the transplant due to her and her donor being unvaccinated against the coronavirus.  

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The memo came after Rhode Island updated its isolation and quarantine guidance in December to reflect the CDC’s updated guidance. 

"For the general public, the updated guidance (which shortens the isolation and quarantine period in some instances) is reflective of science that indicates that most SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs early in the course of illness,'' Wendelken told the Providence Journal.

Workers at other hospitals and skilled nursing homes in the state who are "mildly symptomatic" can also continue working if the facilities are facing a staffing crisis, according to the Rhode Island Department of Health. Any hospital that needs to activate crisis staffing mode needs to notify the state Department of Health. 

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So far, the hospitals have not needed to call on COVID-positive workers to report to the job. 

A FedEx driver delivers a box containing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to Rhode Island Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

A FedEx driver delivers a box containing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to Rhode Island Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

"No, no facility has reported to us yet that they are in a position that requires COVID-19 positive healthcare providers to be working. If a facility does reach that point, that information would be posted publicly so patients and families would be aware," Wendelken told the Providence Journal. 

Like other states, Rhode Island required health care workers to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 1 of last year. The mandate resulted in the termination of hundreds of health care workers in the state, NBC 10 News reported

But in November, 32 unvaccinated employees at Eleanor Slater were allowed to remain on the job due to staffing shortages. 

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 "The Department of Health and Eleanor Slater did the very best they could do. Sometimes when there's not a decision to be made, it's an easy one to make," Democratic Gov. Dan McKee told NBC 10 News at the time. 

Lt. Gov. Dan McKee speaks during Rhode Island's weekly coronavirus press conference in the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in the Rhode Island State House in Providence, Rhode Island, on Feb. 11, 2021. (Photo by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Lt. Gov. Dan McKee speaks during Rhode Island's weekly coronavirus press conference in the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in the Rhode Island State House in Providence, Rhode Island, on Feb. 11, 2021. (Photo by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

"I'm disappointed that we haven't been able to get everyone vaccinated. But at the same point in time, right now our responsibility is to take care of the patients in the hospital," he added. 

Staffing issues have plagued hospitals and nursing homes across the country, sparking various state leaders to call in the National Guard to bolster the facilities after thousands of other health care workers were fired last year over vaccine mandates. 

"Oh crap. We don't have enough people," one Eleanor Slater Hospital staffer told the Providence Journal after reading Friday’s memo on opening the option for COVID-positive workers to continue reporting to work. 

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Another anonymous health care worker told the outlet that opening the option was the "right thing" to do because "all hospitals, [struggle] with staffing. We have no choice."