Anger in North Dakota after governor asks Covid-positive health workers to keep working

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Doug Burgum, said last week that healthcare workers who test positive for coronavirus but do not display symptoms could still report to work. The order, which is in line with CDC guidance for mitigating staff shortages, would only allow asymptomatic health workers who test positive to work in Covid units, and treat patients who already have the virus.

But many feel the idea endangers the workers themselves and their colleagues. It comes as North Dakota faces one of the worst outbreaks of Covid-19 and grapples with healthcare staff shortages.

“We’re worried about somebody dying, frankly, because we couldn’t get to them in time,” said McKamey, an emergency room nurse in Bismarck.

According to data from the Covid Tracking Project, more than 9,400 North Dakotans tested positive for Covid-19 last week alone. About one in 12 North Dakota residents have been infected with the virus; nearly one in 1,000 have died. In early November, the North Dakota Department of Health reported that there were only 12 open ICU beds in the entire state.

McKamey said Burgum’s order goes against everything she’s been taught as a nurse.

“If hospital administrators start forcing Covid-positive staff to go to work, it’s going to be very scary. We’re trained to do no harm, and asking Covid-positive, asymptomatic nurses to return to work is putting patients at risk. It’s putting fellow staff members at risk.”

Nine months into the pandemic, it’s clear healthcare workers already face increased risks. Lost on the Frontline, a joint effort by the Guardian and Kaiser Health News, is investigating the deaths of 1,375 healthcare workers who appear to have died of Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic. Nearly a thirdof those healthcare workers were nurses.

McKamey described long shifts in an emergency room that has begun taking on patients overnight because other wards of the hospital did not have capacity to admit them. Nurses pick up extra shifts to cover for colleagues who have gotten sick and take on multiple critical patients at once.

McKamey, the ER nurse, said she hasn’t had time to process the stress of the last several months. She’s focused on staying healthy, gearing up for what she expects will be a difficult winter, and keeping her patients alive. “We are willing to break our backs and work as hard as we physically can,” McKamey said. “But then to ask us to come in as a potential infectious source, is just stunning.”

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