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NY extends time before virus-positive nursing home staffers can return to work

Dr. Howard Zucker, (left) joins Governor Andrew Cuomo

Dr. Howard Zucker, (left) joins Governor Andrew Cuomo as Cuomo delivers his daily press briefing including Zoom video call with Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio on COVID-19, Coronavirus. Credit: Darren McGee- Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo/Darren McGee

ALBANY — A new state policy orders nursing home workers who test positive for the COVID-19 virus to stay away from their jobs for 14 days — a longer period than under federal guidelines, according to a document sent to nursing homes.

The new measure from state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo doesn’t give a reason for the change, but nursing homes are concerned the move will worsen staff shortages and hurt care.

The new policy comes as the state deals with infections and deaths from the virus in nursing homes. It also came after an upstate county official complained that the state, without local input or public notice, allowed nurses and other staffers who tested positive for the virus to work with COVID-19 patients at a Hornell nursing home. That home has reported 15 deaths from the virus, according to the New York Post.

The state policy issued Wednesday night says a worker who tests positive for the virus may return to work in 14 days if he or she has no symptoms, such as a cough or fever.

Under the policy, nursing home workers with the virus who have symptoms may also return to work 14 days after the symptoms first appear, but any fever would have to subside for three days without using fever-reducing medication. Any respiratory symptoms such as coughing or shortness of breath would also have to improve before the worker could return to work, the directive said.

Workers who had COVID-19, whether with symptoms or without, can return to work to care for all patients. The workers are considered recovered and no longer infectious, a state health department spokeswoman said.

The new directive departs from the guidelines set by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC guidelines set March 16 state a worker who had the virus and symptoms would have to stay away from work for at least seven days after symptoms first appeared. The worker could then return to the nursing home if after at least 72 hours symptoms ended. The CDC did not return calls seeking comment.

The new policy comes as more than 3,043 of the state’s 18,321 deaths blamed on the virus were among nursing home residents, according to state Health Department statistics. Among those deaths, 304 were residents of nursing homes in Nassau County and 308 had resided in Suffolk County nursing homes.

Nursing homes have some concerns that the measure will further reduce staff and hamper care for residents.

“I wish we could have taken a step back and have a deliberative conversation to work out the best way to do it,” said Michael Balboni, executive director of the Greater New York Health Care Facilities Association.

He said the policy exacerbates staffing problems stemming from the March 25 order by Zucker and Cuomo that required nursing homes readmit and admit COVID-19 patients from hospitals, or transfer them to other facilities if they couldn’t care for them.

Zucker acknowledged the new policy could worsen a staff shortage at many nursing homes, but provided databases of health care workers who could be hired on a temporary basis.