Oregon hospital employees balk at state's internal COVID-19 contact-tracing policy recommendation

Guidance from Oregon's public health agency recommending that hospitals not perform internal COVID-19 contact tracing for healthcare providers has prompted concerns from employees about coronavirus exposure, The Oregonian reported.  

The guidance, which comes from the Oregon Health Authority, recommends against hospitals performing internal contact tracing to identify exposures from patients to healthcare workers, according to the publication.

Melissa Sutton, MD, the authority's medical director for respiratory viral pathogens, told Becker's the policy aligns with CDC guidance, which recommends hospitals have flexibility in contact tracing approaches based on the degree of community transmission and availability of resources.

"We must acknowledge the burden contact tracing places on [the] hospital occupational health department when there is significant community transmission and that the end result is the same: no quarantine," Dr. Sutton said via email. "Our healthcare partners have been clear — they can barely keep up with the demands that the pandemic has placed upon them."

She also said she believes the best way to protect employees is through personal protective equipment and said that the authority does not track individual occupational health policies of healthcare systems in the state.

While many of Oregon's largest healthcare systems have not adopted the authority's policy recommendation and continue to tell workers about exposure, some have, Dr. Sutton told The Oregonian, although she did not specify a number.

At Good Shepherd Health Care System in Hermiston, and at other hospitals that have adopted the policy recommendation, employees have expressed concerns that it jeopardizes safety, according to the publication.

Kevin Mealy, an organizer for the Oregon Nurses Association, which represents workers at Good Shepherd and facilities statewide, told The Oregonian "This policy puts everyone in our communities at risk. Workers can't protect their patients or their families if they don’t know they've been exposed."

Aaron Corvin, spokesperson for the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration, confirmed to Becker's that healthcare workers in the state have filed multiple complaints with regulators, claiming, in part, that they were not notified about potential exposure. The state's workplace safety agency would not disclose the details or status of open complaints. Good Shepherd told Becker's it is aware of two filed OSHA complaints that were formally addressed to the state's satisfaction.

Meanwhile, Good Shepherd said it never stopped internal contact tracing and still continues to perform such tracing when there is high risk exposure. The organization said it also continues universal source control measures, requiring all staff to wear masks; routinely monitors for fever and COVID-19 symptoms; and notifies staff of Good Shepherd's COVID-19 policies and procedures.

Since the beginning of the pandemic Good Shepherd has had 34 employees test positive for COVID-19, nearly all of whom it says acquired the virus in the community.

Read The Oregonian's full report here


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