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As we begin 2022, we face an unprecedented surge of COVID-19 cases due to the Omicron coronavirus variant. More than 1 million cases were reported in the U.S. on Monday, a daily record, and at UW Medicine, we have more patients (144 today) hospitalized with COVID-19 than at any point in the pandemic. We also have an increased number of UW Medicine colleagues who are currently isolating due to infection or in quarantine after a higher-risk exposure. Like most of the community, healthcare workers are being infected during regular activities outside of the workplace.

In response to this surge in cases, UW Medicine is implementing new employee guidelines for COVID-19 testing, and we have a new option with rapid antigen testing for staff to return to work more quickly from isolation or quarantine. My message today also includes updates on masks and respirators, boosters and therapeutic treatments.

UW Medicine COVID-19 Activity Summary

COVID-19 Testing

UW Medicine employee COVID-19 testing clinics at Harborview and UW Medical Center – Northwest are extremely busy right now. To keep all of us safe, while also maintaining staffing for patient care, we ask that you follow these temporary guidelines during this time of high COVID-19 rates.

If you provide direct patient care or work in patient-facing areas and have COVID-19 symptoms, please schedule testing via the RedCap online tool prior to going to the test site. If you have been exposed, please contact Employee Health because not all exposures require testing at the testing site.

  • Some Lab Medicine community sites do not require appointments for healthcare workers with valid badges. See the latest list of sites here.
  • If you are symptomatic and tested positive with a home antigen test, we consider this a true positive. There is no need to do confirmatory PCR testing at a test site.
  • If you tested positive using a home test or at a site other than Harborview or UW Medical Center – Northwest, please notify Employee Health for advice on isolation duration.
  • You can schedule testing for any symptomatic or exposed household members by calling the Contact Center family priority testing number at 206.520.5050: Monday–Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday–Sunday 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Due to capacity constraints, it is difficult for us to accommodate same day appointments for household members. We recognize that this is a significant challenge for healthcare workers and their families and are working to address this urgently.

If you do not provide direct patient care or work in patient-facing areas, please do not schedule yourself or your household members at Harborview or UWMC – Northwest. We ask that you and your family members get tested for symptoms or known exposure at one of the Lab Medicine community sites.

Thank you for your patience and understanding as we work to increase capacity for employees and household members at our testing sites.

Rapid Antigen Testing Program

Due to the emergent staffing situation resulting from the significant increase in COVID-19 activity throughout our hospitals and updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), we are implementing a COVID-19 Rapid Antigen Testing Program. Employees with a COVID-19 infection who work in direct patient care or in patient-facing areas are eligible to take part in this program, which may allow you to safely return to work sooner than our current guidelines indicate.

  • If you were symptomatic and are now feeling better, you may be able to return to work with Employee Health approval when you have a negative antigen test 7 days from symptom onset or from a positive PCR test (whichever was first).
  • If you were asymptomatic, you may be able to return to work with Employee Health approval when you have a negative antigen test 5 days after a positive PCR test.

UW Medicine will be contacting and mailing test kits to eligible employees, and instructions on what to do with results will be packaged with the test kit. Note: please do not call Employee Health to ask if you are eligible for this program. If you are not contacted, you are not eligible.

We are also developing a plan to provide healthcare workers on work surveillance with self-administered PCR tests to help reduce strain on testing resources at the Harborview and UW Medical Center – Northwest sites. I will provide more information on that front as soon as it’s available.

Masking and Respirators

At this time, all Harborview personnel (staff, trainees, faculty) involved in patient care are temporarily required to use an N95 respirator in clinical care spaces. We recommend that you use a fit-tested N95 respirator if available. If you are not fit-tested, use the best fitting N95 respirator available. Fit-tested respirators continue to be required when entering aerosol and airborne precaution rooms in addition to other PPE. Respirators can be worn continuously and replaced after removal for breaks. For more information on mask and respirator use, please refer to the extended use protocol.

UW Medical Center personnel should wear a higher-level mask (N95, KN95s, KF94, or similar) for all patient care. Staff may wear a non-fit tested N95 if it is more comfortable and if they are not in an area requiring aerosol/contact or airborne isolation. Staff who can tolerate extended use of N95s are encouraged to wear them.

For those who do not provide direct patient care, using the highest level of respiratory protection that you can tolerate continues to be strongly encouraged. We anticipate that this requirement will be temporary and will roll back to the prior standard when community and Harborview infection rates decrease.

Boosters and COVID-19 Therapeutics

The Food & Drug Administration and CDC this week provided new recommendations for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, expanding booster eligibility to 12- to 15-year-olds and reducing the recommended time between the completion of primary vaccination and a booster dose from six months to five months for all individuals 12 and older. They also recommended a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine for certain immunocompromised children ages 5 to 11.

Credit again to our vaccine team for its readiness to accommodate this newly eligible — and with school back in session, increasingly important — booster group.

Moving forward, booster doses are going to become even more important in limiting the impact COVID-19 has on our community and hospital system. Not only do boosters extend vaccine effectiveness and reduce the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19, they also significantly reduce the need for therapeutic treatments in breakthrough cases.

UW Medicine offers monoclonal antibody treatments and, starting this week, an oral antiviral treatment. But all are in limited supply and available only to patients at high risk for severe disease who meet strict eligibility requirements. All patients seeking therapeutics for an active COVID-19 infection must be referred by their providers. Please do not direct patients to seek therapeutic treatment through emergency departments because this only adds to the strain on our system and limits our ability to provide quality care to those more acutely in need.

We are also working to offer the Evusheld prophylactic treatment. UW Medicine patients who meet the highest priority criteria to receive this therapy will be automatically considered for clinical review. For this reason, UW Medicine providers do not need to request or refer patients for Evusheld.

As we begin this new year (and yes, it is indeed a new year and not a replay of 2020, despite the way it feels at times), I want to encourage you all to take every precaution possible. With Omicron driving so many new COVID-19 cases, we are in a situation where we must assume that we are being exposed to the virus and act accordingly. This means following all the latest guidelines while also encouraging your family and friends to be extra vigilant. And, of course, if they haven’t yet, please encourage them to get vaccinated and boosted. The vaccines are our best tools to prevent serious illness and to end the pandemic.

Despite this challenging start, I hope you were able to safely spend time with loved ones over the holidays and wish you all a happy and healthy new year!


John Lynch, MD, MPH
Medical Director, Infection Prevention & Control
Associate Medical Director, Harborview Medical Center
Division of Allergy & Infectious Diseases, UW School of Medicine