Health care providers say most of the new OSHA standards were already in place. (Getty Images)
Under a new safety rule from the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration, health care providers in nearly all settings have 30 days to assess their COVID-19 hazards, write a plan for mitigating virus spread, and erect barriers when safe distancing is impossible.
New Hampshire providers say that won’t be a heavy burden.
“Safety of frontline staff and patients is at the forefront of a hospital’s approach to care delivery every day, regardless of a pandemic,” said Kathy Bizarro-Thunberg of the New Hampshire Hospital Association, which represents 30 hospitals and medical centers. “Many safety protocols were in place prior to the pandemic and will be analyzed, enhanced, and added to based on the recently issued OSHA emergency temporary standards.”
The state lifted its mask mandate weeks ago and more recently eliminated pandemic restrictions on businesses and restaurants. The State House, which stopped requiring masks in early May, reopened to the public Monday. But health care providers have continued requiring masks, distancing, and other safety protocols, such as screening patients for COVID-19 symptoms.
The new OSHA rule applies only to health care settings, not other workplaces that proved to be high-risk, such as prisons, upsetting some national labor unions. The union representing the state’s corrections officers did not return a call for comment.
Jake Leon, spokesman for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said the state will review the new OSHA requirements but already requires health facilities to follow most of the key pieces.
“All health facilities licensing rules contain a section specifically related to emergency preparedness,” he said. “All licensed facilities are required to have a plan to address site-specific plans for the protection of all persons on-site.” In addition to infectious disease control, they must include safety plans for fires, natural disasters, bomb threats, severe weather, and other emergencies.
Brendan Williams, president and CEO of the New Hampshire Health Care Association, which represents long-term care providers in New Hampshire, said their members started doing training exercises two years ago on containing infectious disease spread. The focus was influenza, which Williams acknowledged was a much different situation than COVID-19.
“Emergency preparedness was definitely a priority for us,” he said. “But nothing could have prepared us for COVID-19. That was beyond the scales of anything anyone ever imagined.”
He said the state’s nursing homes, which are federally regulated, have already been following OSHA safety precautions, which were implemented long before COVID-19. Assisted-living facilities are under the state’s jurisdiction and safety rules.
What may become challenging is determining the circumstances where fully vaccinated employees are exempt from the new rule. OSHA’s frequently asked questions on this issue runs 541 words and can be summed up with two words: It depends.
It’s also hard to say with certainty how many health care workers in New Hampshire are fully vaccinated. The state said last week it was 68 percent, while another recent report put it at 81 percent. A new report from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said New Hampshire is fifth in the country at 70.33 percent. (Vermont holds first place at 78.33 percent.) That agency reports us as doing far better when it comes to vaccination rates for residents in long-term facilities. It says 92.30 percent are vaccinated, just behind Vermont’s 96.91 percent.
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