The California Department of Public Health is backtracking in a big way this week, as it has just issued a new guidance that will allow hospitals and health networks to force COVID-positive healthcare workers to keep working if they are asymptomatic.

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“The department is providing temporary flexibility to help hospitals and emergency services providers respond to an unprecedented surge and staffing shortages,” the health department said in a statement. “Hospitals have to exhaust all other options before resorting to this temporary tool. Facilities and providers using this tool, should have asymptomatic COVID-19 positive workers interact only with COVID-19 positive patients to the extent possible.”

The guidance, which was issued on Saturday, went on to say that healthcare workers don’t need to test negative or isolate at all before returning to work if they are not showing symptoms. The guidance will be in effect until at least February 1, and it comes as cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 are surging all over the country.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is already expressing outrage over this guidance.

“Healthcare workers and patients need the protection of clear rules guided by strong science. Allowing employers to bring back workers who may still be infectious is one of the worst ideas I have heard during this pandemic, and that’s really saying something,” Bob Schoonover, President of SEIU California and Executive Director of SEIU California, told CBS Sacramento.

The president of the California Nurses Association, Sandy Reding, complained that patients will be put at risk over this guidance.

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“We are very concerned,” she said. “If you have health care workers who are COVID positive care for vulnerable populations, we can spread the COVID virus inside the hospital as well. If we are going to set up for the surge, let’s set up protocols to have transmission reduced. Which means not have COVID positive people come to work.”

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H0wever, Dr. George Rutherford, professor of Epidemiology at University of California San Francisco, said that the move was not unprecedented.

“This is about having infected people taking care of infected people,” he said. “We did this with Ebola in South Africa. We’ve done it before. It’s not the first play option in our playbook. I think staffing issues are such that it led the state to put this guidance out.”

This comes as staffing shortages are plaguing hospitals all over California.

“In the emergency departments, we do have patients that are literally stacked up 20 to 30 in some of the hospitals, waiting for an open bed that will hopefully be available when we discharge patients,” said Chris Van Gorder, president and CEO of Scripps Health.

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