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St. Mary's Hospital at 'critical' staffing, some COVID-positive employees return to work

The policy follows new Maine CDC guidance allowing hospitals to address severe staffing shortages.

LEWISTON, Maine — A Maine hospital is now allowing some asymptomatic employees who test positive for COVID-19 to return to work. 

St. Mary's Hospital in Lewiston confirmed to NEWS CENTER Maine Monday that it has declared a staffing "crisis" due to the recent surge in cases impacting its employees. 

Following the latest guidelines from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the hospital system will allow some employees who have been exposed to the virus or who have tested positive to work if "absolutely necessary."

According to hospital spokesman Steve Costello, those employees will only be able to work in COVID-positive units and must also be "willing" to work when asked. 

They will also be required to wear full PPP [personal protective equipment] at all times. 

"We are temporarily taking these emergency steps in order to maintain appropriate staffing levels to safely care for our patients; we will resume normal operations at the earliest opportunity," Costello told NEWS CENTER Maine in a statement.

In a recent email about the new policy, hospital officials asked employees to contact their managers immediately if they develop symptoms or receive a positive test result. 

The email said COVID-19 cases are increasing among staff, as are cases of influenza and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus).

The email urged workers to get their booster shots immediately.

"This change in guidelines will only be enacted when a work unit is truly in crisis status and has exhausted all other options for filling shifts," the email stated.

Late last week, a spokesperson for the Maine CDC told NEWS CENTER Maine that no hospitals in Maine had implemented the "crisis" staffing guidance. 

A spokeswoman for the Maine Dept. of Health and Human Services did not directly respond to a request for comment about St. Mary's Hospital but did acknowledge the latest guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"[The December 23 guidance], specific to health care workers that is intended to help alleviate the strain that health care facilities throughout the country are facing," DHHS spokeswoman Jackie Farwell said in a statement. "The guidance enables facilities that are in 'crisis' to allow certain COVID positive workers to come back to work before five days without a test, with infection control precautions taken to protect patients."

Maine Hospital Association President Steven Michaud told NEWS CENTER Maine on Monday that it is up to individual hospitals to make the determination that they are in "crisis" mode and that he expects matters will only get worse.  

"It’s very very bad out there right now with staff outages due to COVID exposure exploding," Michaud said. "I wouldn’t be surprised if many hospitals end up in a similar situation here very soon."