Rhode Island Defends Using COVID-Positive Staff Over Unvaccinated Health Care Workers

The Rhode Island Department of Health stands by the decision to allow COVID positive health care workers to return to their jobs instead of rehiring unvaccinated workers who were terminated because of their inoculation status.

Updated quarantine and isolation guidance from the Rhode Island Department of Health allows employees to continue working at hospitals and nursing homes without restrictions if the facility is so short-staffed it's a safety hazard for patients and residents. The updated guidance sparked some criticism after health care workers were placed on unpaid leave for not getting vaccinated, with critics questioning if lifting the mandate would be a better solution to staffing shortages.

Rhode Island Health Department spokesman Joseph Wendelken told The Providence Journal that unvaccinated health care workers are at a "greater individual risk" given the number of COVID-positive patients in facilities. Wendelken added that a vaccinated person who tests positive for COVID-19 has a lower viral load compared to an unvaccinated person who contracts COVID-19.

"That means the likelihood of transmission is much less," Wendelken said.

covid rhode island nurses helath care
The Rhode Island Department of Health defended its decision to issue guidance that allows COVID positive employees to return to work if facilities are in crisis mode. Above, U.S. Army Critical Care Nurse, Captain Catherine Sison, tends to a non-COVID patient on a ventilator at Beaumont Hospital in Dearborn, Michigan, on December 17, 2021. Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images

As has been seen nationwide, Rhode Island has experienced staffing shortages amid the pandemic, and health care leaders are worried the problem could only get worse. John Gage, president of the Rhode Island Health Care Association, told The Boston Globe in November that nursing homes are understaffed by as much as 20 percent.

"Rhode Island nursing homes are facing the fight of their lives and the future of long-term care for Rhode Island's most vulnerable citizens stands in the balance," Gage said.

The survey found as many as 28 facilities and units shut down over staffing issues and some facilities have had to close off to new admissions.

State Senator Jessica de la Cruz called for the state to "admit its mistake" with the vaccine mandate and rehire unvaccinated health care workers. She wrote on Twitter that the state needs an "all hands on deck to address the health care crisis."

Facilities must notify the Rhode Island Department of Health if they change their staffing category to crisis levels and post the change on their website with an explanation. Wendelken told The Providence Journal that no facility has reported that it's gotten to crisis level staffing issues, yet.

Facilities are only allowed to permit COVID-19 positive people to work if they've entered the "crisis level." Individuals, regardless of their vaccinated status, must isolate themselves for five days and wear a mask for an additional five days at facilities that are in the contingency or conventional stage. Contingency level staffing indicates shortages are anticipated at the facility.

Newsweek reached out to Joseph Wendelken for comment.