As the number of infected people at NHC HealthCare Greenwood crests at 100 and the senior care facility reports 12 deaths from COVID-19, employees have shared concerns that administrators are asking employees with the virus to continue working.
NHC reported online having 103 in-house active COVID patients. The site has had 49 employees test positive, and five patients have been taken to the hospital for treatment. Four patients have recovered, along with 11 employees. The numbers NHC posted online Wednesday at 5 p.m. reflected their data as of midnight Tuesday, according to the NHC website.
Two NHC employees who agreed to talk to the Index-Journal on condition they remain anonymous said they felt sick, began exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 and tested positive for the virus, and were both asked to consider returning to work within days of receiving their results.
One of the employees said she called her boss the day she got tested and described her symptoms, which included fatigue, a loss of taste and smell, and an elevated body temperature. She was told her symptoms appeared mild, and because her temperature wasn’t above 100 degrees it didn’t count as a fever.
She was told about extra pay the company had been approved to give employees, called “hero pay,” and was told if she wasn’t feeling too sick to work that she was needed the following day.
The other employee said her bosses were also reluctant to have her out for quarantine, and she said she was told she could still work despite a positive test as well.
Having health care workers continue to work after testing positive for COVID-19 is a strategy the CDC recommends for mitigating staff shortages. The CDC first recommends partnering with other local health care providers and coalitions to find additional staff when needed, hiring additional staff and adjusting schedules to ensure adequate staffing.
If shortages do occur, the CDC has laid out “crisis capacity strategies” to battle being short staffed. If other mitigation strategies fail to stop a staff shortage, the guidance allows for health care professionals with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 to work, despite not meeting all return-to-work criteria. This includes doing jobs where they don’t interact with others all the way up to, as a last resort, allowing sick employees to care for patients who do not have COVID-19.
When asked if NHC Greenwood was employing any of these CDC-listed strategies, NHC corporate Director of Business Development Casey Reese said the company’s staffing meets patient needs by using all available resources.
“However, negative patients are not treated by positive employees,” she said in an email. “No positive employees showing symptoms return to work until they recover per CDC guidelines. Our units are completely separate with dedicated staffing wearing proper personal protective equipment. Our partners’ teamwork and adaptability through this fluid situation is truly remarkable.”
She did not address questions about how many nurses and medical staff members the facility employs, or how many of them have tested positive and are out recovering from COVID-19.
NHC Greenwood Administrator Jacob Shearer could not be reached for comment after multiple phone calls, messages and an email. Both NHC employees who spoke anonymously said they chose not to return to work until they’ve recovered.
At Self Regional Healthcare, the former furlough program has nearly ended as fewer than five support staff members are still on furlough, said Mark Hyatt, director of marketing and public relations. Many clinical staffers are working extended hours and extra shifts to meet an increased patient volume, and as of Tuesday, 32 team members were out on quarantine.
“This is a number that changes daily and we watch it carefully to guide our staffing decisions,” he said. “It’s often necessary for us to float clinical staff from one department to another, or bring in outside resources (called ‘Crisis Travelers’) to meet the needs of our patients.”
Hyatt noted that the CDC had issued guidance in July on crisis standards of care, allowing health care facilities to loosen precautions. It reduced the time before a quarantining employee returns to work from 20 days to as little as 10 in urgent situations, he said. Self has had to use this standard a handful of times since it was issued.
“It is, by far, our most common practice to keep team members who meet the criteria for quarantine out of work for the full quarantine period,” Hyatt said, “which is until all symptoms are completely resolved or until 21 days after illness onset, whichever is longer.”
At Abbeville Area Medical Center, departments haven’t had trouble remaining staffed, Chief Nursing Officer Sharon Martin said. They’ve been able to use as-needed staff to fill spots, and in busier times department managers and directors have stepped in. Nursing staff are trained to be easily shifted to other areas of the hospital.
About two or three staff members end up quarantined a week, Martin said, and while there’s been no known transmission of COVID-19 from a patient to staff, some staff have been quarantined for close contact to a COVID-positive person.
Some AAMC employees have exhibited symptoms of COVID-19 but tested negative for the virus. Martin said these symptomatic employees are sent home for 10 days because the test is not 100% accurate.
“We have our positive employees with no or mild symptoms to remain quarantined for 10 days, and our positive with severe symptoms quarantined 20 days,” she said.