As COVID-19 numbers rise across the nation, and with hospitals around the country nearing capacity, health care workers at hospitals throughout Michigan — including at Michigan Medicine — are being asked to come to work even if they have been exposed to someone who recently tested positive for COVID-19.
According to a statement from Michigan Medicine spokesperson Mary Masson, hospital employees are not allowed to work if they received a positive test or are displaying symptoms.
In an email to The Michigan Daily, Masson wrote that Michigan Medicine employees who believe they have come into contact with someone who has COVID-19 are still able to come to work if they are asymptomatic while they await their test results, which is typical in hospitals where employees are considered essential.
“This policy is common in hospital settings, where workers are considered essential,” Masson wrote. “Michigan Medicine employees who have symptoms or who have a positive test are not allowed to work.”
For staff who have been exposed to the virus but are asymptomatic, Masson wrote that they should get tested approximately five days after exposure.
The hospital’s policy was initially enacted in March 2020, crafted in line with recommendations from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and other government guidelines.
Masson said Michigan Medicine is acting in compliance with a state law that took effect in October prohibiting employees from reporting to work under certain circumstances related to COVID-19. That legislation includes an exception for health care professionals, who can still report to work even if they were in close contact with individuals who tested positive for the virus.
A doctor at Michigan Medicine, who requested anonymity to discuss internal workplace matters, said they were not aware of any sort of backlash to the policy among the hospital’s doctors.
“In the halls of the hospital, there is no prevailing sentiment, this has not created a buzz of disgruntlement or support for that matter,” the doctor said. “People are doing their jobs, under difficult circumstances, and are trying to stay well regardless of exposures.”
But Katie Oppenheim, head of the nursing union at Michigan Medicine, expressed concern that this policy put other hospital employees and patients at risk.
“Among our nurses, there’s great concern over having people come to work if they’ve had close, unprotected contact with somebody who tested positive,” Oppenheim said. “We have great concern over that in terms of the safety of our nurses as well as our patients.”
Oppenheim also said the policy has heightened nurses’ worries, particularly when it comes to concerns about potentially bringing the virus home.
“Nurses are nurses because we want to take care of people, that’s what we do,” Oppenheim said. “That being said, for the nurses who are taking care of patients in a physical, face-to-face way, in other words, not people who work on the phone, there’s a lot of anxiety about having the appropriate PPE and having places to rest and refresh without being in close contact with coworkers.”
Masson wrote that all health care workers wear medical-grade face masks while at work to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. She wrote that there have been no definitive instances where COVID-19 was transmitted from health care workers to patients at Michigan Medicine.
LSA freshman Rachel Swartz had to be taken to the hospital to be treated for COVID-19 earlier in the fall. Swartz said all the health care workers around her were wearing protective equipment.
According to Swartz, the nurses were separated by a plastic curtain to stay safe when they were not treating her. Swartz was also not allowed to leave her room while she stayed at the hospital to prevent the spread of the virus.
“The nurses were very nice in general,” Swartz said. “They did all the tests they needed to do, but besides that, they didn’t really talk to me much about corona(virus) or anything, it was really just like they did what they needed to do.”
In an effort to keep the general public informed about COVID-19 levels at the hospital, Michigan Medicine has released statistics on currently admitted COVID-19 patients, which is updated weekly. The number of cases has generally been trending upward since late October.
Nursing graduate student Brock Willett is the community outreach chair of the student affiliate chapter of the Michigan Council of Nurse Practitioners, a group representing nurse practitioners around the state. He said he doesn’t believe that Michigan Medicine’s policy is the best, but said that it is understandable given the rising cases.
“In an ideal world, anyone who comes in contact with individuals that they know are for sure positive, they would not be allowed to come in to work,” Willett said. “However, with the way things are kind of going and the way our numbers are, being a health care professional, when you are in contact with these people, as long as you’re wearing proper attire, I think it would be all right.”
Daily News Contributor Hiruni Jayawickreme can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.
For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.