• The new guidance is in effect until Feb. 1
  • The health department said the guidance is a response to staffing shortages
  • Said positive healthcare workers should interact only with COVID-19 positive patients to the "extent possible"
  • Healthcare workers with COVID-19 are required to wear N-95 respirators

Asymptomatic healthcare workers who tested positive for COVID-19 are now allowed to skip quarantine and return to work, according to new guidelines announced Saturday, as the state struggles to deal with an "unprecedented surge" in coronavirus infections.

The guidelines, which have quickly come under fire from health workers and unions, importantly, do not completely prevent such COVID-19 positive healthcare workers from interacting with patients who do not have the infection.

Under the new guidelines from the California Department of Public Health, healthcare workers with COVID-19 would no longer need to isolate or test negative for the virus before they return to work if they are asymptomatic. However, they must wear an N-95 mask at all times.

“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 to NBC Bay Area.

“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.”

That left open the possibility that infected healthcare workers could, at least in some situations, interact with non-COVID patients and potentially pass on the infection.

The health department’s announcement sparked outrage among health officials and workers in the state, with the executive director of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in California calling it “one of the worst ideas.”

“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, SEIU president and executive director, told CBS Sacramento.

Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, president of the California Nurses Association, also called the new guidelines “callous,” warning that it could put patients in “grave danger.”

The guidance went into effect Saturday and will last through Feb. 1.

California hospitals have faced staffing issues amid the fast spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant. Last week, Scripps Health CEO Chris Van Gorder said that six to eight health care workers called the hospital every hour to say they have COVID-19.

In October, Kaiser Permanente—a health giant in the state—suspended 2,000 unvaccinated employees. The health giant will terminate employees who do not comply with its vaccine mandate on Jan. 10.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, California has reported a total of 5,634,357 COVID-19 cases and 76,341 deaths. The state currently has a 21.7% positivity rate, according to California's novel coronavirus dashboard.

A handful of Myanmar nurses hiding from the junta are running makeshift clinics to treat Covid patients and resistance fighters
A handful of Myanmar nurses hiding from the junta are running makeshift clinics to treat Covid patients and resistance fighters AFP / STR