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Nurses are using their own time off from work to be in isolation after coronavirus contact

Nurses and health care workers say there needs to be some way for them to be quarantined without having to use their accrued time.

Nurses are on the front line of the coronavirus crisis.
Nurses are on the front line of the coronavirus crisis.Read moreKutsal Lenger / Getty Images/iStockphoto

It’s been about 10 days since a nurse at Shore Medical Center in Somers Point interacted with a patient who later tested positive for the coronavirus.

The nurse, who asked that her name not be used to avoid repercussions at work, has been self-quarantined since March 21 and so far feels fine. It took about six days after she was within six feet of the infected patient to learn that the person had tested positive for COVID-19. She didn’t touch the infected person, she said; and remaining isolated until March 30 instead of going to work is a decision she made to protect other hospital staffers and patients just in case she’d picked up the virus.

For the sake of ensuring the safety of those around her, though, the nurse at the Somers Point hospital is using her own sick time and paid time off. If the nurse is uninfected now, though, and later does catch the illness, she will again be asked to quarantine on her own time, she said, except then won’t have any personal time to draw from. She fears going unpaid while recovering from the virus.

“If I do come back now and I get sick, I have no time accrued,” the eight-year nursing veteran said.

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In a review of 23 Pennsylvania health systems, more than half, including Einstein Medical Center and, at the time the survey was conducted, Temple University Hospital systems, required nurses and technicians to use their own time for quarantine, which can include sick or accrued paid time off, according to a survey of members conducted by the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals, which represents about 8,500 health-care workers statewide.

An Einstein spokesperson said Wednesday evening that the system has modified its policies “to enable those impacted to use sick time if needed.”

The outcry from health workers led to a policy reversal at Temple University Hospital, where as of Wednesday afternoon the hospital agreed to grant 14 days’ sick leave to workers exposed to the illness on the job and told to quarantine by the hospital’s occupational health department, an internal department used by workers to medical and health issues and worker’s compensation, the hospital reported Wednesday night. The decision would affect almost 3,000 workers. Employees’ decision to self-quarantine, though, would still require the workers use their own accrued time.

“We need to encourage our workers to come forward with their concerns about their symptoms or their exposure,” said Celeste Bevans, a radiology technician at Temple University Hospital and a representative of the Temple University Allied Health Professionals union, “and encourage them to stay home.”

Temple had been contemplating a policy shift for the last 10 days, a spokesperson said in an emailed statement Wednesday night. The new policy also allows workers to file a worker’s compensation claim if their mandated quarantine extends beyond 14 days. Workers who are required to quarantine due to coronavirus exposure outside their jobs would still have to use their own time, the hospital reported.

The policy applies to all workers in the Temple University Health System, including doctors.

Two large Philadelphia health providers, Penn Medicine and Jefferson University Hospital, do not have unionized nurses and were not included in the survey. Penn workers exposed to the virus on the job who require self-isolation can use paid leave outside their accrued time off, a spokesperson said Wednesday night. Jefferson did not reply to a request for information on its quarantine policies.

Doctors in the region are generally not represented by unions, and quarantine policies for physicians were not reviewed by the union.

Temple’s policies, Bevans said, had discouraged workers exposed to the illness from staying away from the job.

The policy is just one way hospital systems seem out of step with the new demands they are facing as the coronavirus spreads. Health-care workers describe conditions that invite the illness. Quick, easy-to-access testing would provide answers as to which workers need to be quarantined and which do not, but hospitals aren’t able to test all staff for the coronavirus, Bevans said.

“We cannot even get tested in our own facility,” she said. “We have to self-quarantine and find a location to test me.”

And the shortage of equipment like N95 masks, which can effectively filter inhalation of the coronavirus, are being held in reserve until patients are confirmed to have the illness, Bevans said. She described nurses and techs who have worked with suspected COVID-19 patients for days using surgical masks, which provide minimal protection. When those patients officially test positive, though, staff is then told to use the N95 masks.

“Of course there are going to be people exposed,” Bevans said. “Come this time next week I couldn’t tell you how the number is going to rise.”

Most recently, Bevans said, Temple gave staff the instruction that they should not consider themselves exposed to the coronavirus unless they had 15 minutes or more of exposure to an infected person.

The nurse at Shore Medical Center was told not to wear a mask at all before she was quarantined, she said.

“I was wearing a surgical mask and I got yelled at,” she said. “They said, ‘Take the mask off.’”

She also was told she could return to work before her quarantine period was over if she wore a mask. She was not tested for COVID-19 because she does not have symptoms, she said.

“The staff is being compensated when they are home,” a spokesperson from Shore Medical Center stated in an emailed response to a request for comment, but did not address questions about why staff were being asked to use their own accrued time.

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The PASNAP study found hospitals around the region were using a variety of options to account for quarantine time. St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia is offering workers some paid leave to supplement their own time off. St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne, part of the Trinity Health Mid-Atlantic, is providing 14 days of leave for workers who need to be quarantined. That’s a new policy prompted by the coronavirus, a spokesperson said.

“The organization has put in place an additional level of paid time away from work during this period of uncertainty,” said Ann D’Antonio, vice president of marketing and communications for Trinity Health Mid-Atlantic, which employs 9,200 in the region.