Rantz: MultiCare hospitals order symptomatic COVID-positive staff to see patients

Jan 12, 2022, 5:56 PM | Updated: Jan 13, 2022, 11:52 am
MultiCare hospitals...
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

MultiCare Health Systems is ordering symptomatic, COVID-positive staff to work at its area hospitals, the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH has learned. Officials with the organization initially refused to comment.

According to an internal memo dated Jan. 6, MultiCare hospitals have moved into “crisis levels of staffing.” The impetus for the move was the rise in hospital visits, though not all due to COVID.

Consequently, the hospitals modified their return-to-work process, ordering staff “to work even if they are experiencing mild symptoms but are improving.” But a MultiCare staffer claimed that unless a staffer has a fever, “they want us coming in.” COVID-positive staffers are not required to disclose their status to patients or coworkers.

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At a Jan. 6 press conference, MultiCare’s Chief Quality, Safety, and Nursing Officer, June Altaras, addressed reporters on the state’s hospital staffing crisis.

She described a quicker turnaround time for COVID-positive staffers to return to work, “so that we can appropriately bring back employees a bit sooner so we can continue to deliver the standard of care we expect for all of our patients.”

But MultiCare announced that same day, in an internal all-staff memo obtained by the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH, that the hospital was bringing back staff who are both COVID-positive and experiencing symptoms.

“Under these guidelines, some staff may return to work even if they are experiencing mild symptoms but are improving,” Altaras and David Carlson, DO, SVP & Chief Physician Officer, wrote.

There are eight MultiCare hospitals in the Puget Sound region, with locations in Tacoma, Olympia, Covington, Auburn, Puyallup, and Seattle.

Who comes back to work?

A chart attached to the memo, titled, “Management of COVID-exposed and COVID-positive staff during crisis staffing level,” explained who would come back to the hospitals and under what circumstances.

Staff who test positive for COVID, regardless of vaccination status, may return to work. They’re allowed to treat patients.

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According to the chart, “Positive staff with mild to moderate illness” may work so long as they wear appropriate PPE, do not take breaks with others, and agree to stay home “if symptoms worsen.” The acceptable PPE is N95 masks.

The chart explains:

IF working with patients:
Do NOT assign to care for immunocompromised.

-Prioritize patient assignments in this order as possible:
1) COVID positive /COVID rule out patients
2) vaccinated patients
3) all other patients.

Managers may choose to make other exceptions based on patient risk and staff availability.

If a staff member’s symptoms “develop,” they are to be sent home. If that doesn’t happen, managers must “monitor that staff wear appropriate PPE/source control.”

“If possible, assign to non-clinical role,” managers are told.

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Hospital spokesperson refuses to comment, staff express concern

The Jason Rantz Show on KTTH reached out to MultiCare for comment five times. Roughly nine hours later, spokesperson Holly Harvey emailed to explain she would not submit a comment by the 5:30 p.m. deadline.

Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) permit health care workers who are COVID-positive to work without restrictions if they are in a staffing crisis. However, the following criteria must be met for a staff member to return to work while COVID-positive: at least five days have passed since symptoms first appeared; the health care worker has been fever-free for at least 24 hours without the assistance of a fever-reducing medication; and their symptoms have improved.

But MultiCare will not provide specific data on the current bed usage at its hospitals to explain why staffing is considered at crisis levels. They also would not confirm how many health care staff were fired due to Governor Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate, which was implemented to stop the spread of COVID from staffer to staffer and from staff to patient.

Some MultiCare staffers are concerned they are exposing patients to COVID. According to multiple studies, the omicron variant is mild but spreads very easily. And according to the MultiCare memo, fitted N95 masks are not always required to be worn.

A source who works for MultiCare, who asked to remain anonymous, tells KTTH sister-station KIRO Radio that employees are upset.

“You could be dizzy, coughing, whatever. Any other symptom aside from a fever, they want us coming in,” the source said.

Update 1/12/22 at 9:57 p.m.: MultiCare responds

Lori Meyers, director of external communications, responded to questions Wednesday evening.

Meyers confirmed that while COVID-positive employees are able to work, “we have implemented rigorous protocols to enable us to treat all patients safely.” But she also noted that hospital staff are not required to disclose to patients if they have COVID, and that they do not test staffers unless they are symptomatic.

“The numbers of patients we are seeing in our hospitals right now is higher than any other time during the pandemic,” Meyers said. “This coupled with the fact that Omicron is highly contagious has impacted health care on all levels. As with many other industries, health care is experiencing significant staffing shortages and MultiCare is not immune.”

Meyers did not confirm how many staff members were fired due to the COVID vaccine mandate.

Update 1/13/22 at 11:51 a.m.: MultiCare releases more details

Meyers indicated that five hospitals have reached 100% capacity, though did not yet have details on how many COVID-positive patients are occupying beds due to treatment of the virus, versus patients who happened to have COVID but were not in the hospital for that reason.

The impacted hospitals are Allenmore, Auburn Medical Center, Good Samaritan, Tacoma General, and Deaconess (Inland NW).

But a crucial point is that she confirms 202 patients are in beds when they do not need to be. There are “barriers to release,” she says, which include staffing shortages at nursing facilities.

Thanks to vaccine mandates and competing, higher-paying jobs, nurses have left facilities around the state. MultiCare confirms they released 55 staff over the vaccine mandate.

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3–6 pm on KTTH 770 AM (HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here. Follow @JasonRantz  on  Twitter,  Instagram, and Facebook. Check back frequently for more news and analysis.

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Rantz: MultiCare hospitals order symptomatic COVID-positive staff to see patients