In this Dec. 8, 2021, file photo, nurse Cassandra Pateneaude treats a patient in the hallway of the Maine Medical Center emergency department. Credit: Courtesy of MaineHealth

MaineHealth will no longer require employees infected with COVID-19 to get retested before returning from a five-day isolation, the health system said Thursday.

The Portland-based system, which operates primarily in southern and western Maine, is making the change due to a lack of supply of antigen tests. The tests are also not a reliable measure of infectiousness, MaineHealth spokesperson John Porter said.

“The reality is that the antigen test has not proven reliable in determining infectivity,” said Doug Sawyer, MaineHealth’s interim chief medical officer. “That’s why testing is not required by the U.S. [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].”

The change reflects the continued struggles faced by Maine hospitals as they attempt to contain the worst health crisis seen by the state in a century. As hospitalizations in Maine remain at near-record levels amid the omicron surge, MaineHealth has brought several of its facilities under contingency staffing.

That level, as specified in U.S. CDC guidelines released last month, allows staff members with COVID-19 to return after five days if their symptoms are not severe and are improving.

After five days of symptoms, MaineHealth employees will be able to return to work if they have been fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medications per the CDC guidelines, Porter said.

A negative COVID-19 test is not required under those rules. However, MaineHealth had instituted one as an extra precaution.

Contingency staffing is a step below crisis staffing, which allows employees with COVID-19 to return without isolating. However, Thursday’s announcement is not part of a larger shift toward that level of staffing, Porter said.

“This is not a precursor to crisis staffing,” Porter said. “Among Maine hospitals, no MaineHealth organization is in crisis mode, though ‘contingency’ is common across our system.”

Many hospitals across Maine have gone into contingency staffing in recent weeks, including Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, due to staffing shortages from COVID-19 infections and quarantines as well as the increased workload from treating COVID-19 patients.