Businesses don’t have to notify employees when a co-worker tests positive for COVID-19; system relies on ‘civic duty’
photo by: Associated Press
Here is a fact you may want to take notice of in today’s COVID-19 world: In Douglas County, there is no guarantee you will ever know when one of your co-workers tests positive for the virus.
As the Journal-World did reporting this week to confirm a positive case at Lawrence manufacturer Berry Global, it became clear that most area workers basically are at the mercy of their employers to voluntarily disclose when fellow employees have tested positive.
The Journal-World’s reporting also clarified two other important pieces of COVID-19 information regarding workplaces:
• Businesses that have had an employee test positive for the virus are not required to close down for any certain period of time.
• Such businesses aren’t required to undergo any specific type of disinfecting or sanitation process following a positive test, although public health officials certainly would encourage it.
Dan Partridge, director of Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, confirmed both those items in a written statement to the Journal-World. He also confirmed that his office isn’t releasing details about where people who tested positive may have worked and that employers are not required to release that information to the public or to fellow employees.
“Businesses are not required to notify other employees,” Partridge said in the statement to the Journal-World. “As mentioned earlier, LDCPH through our disease investigation staff will notify all known contacts to a positive coronavirus case.”
But how the health department defines a “contact” is important to understand. In a follow up interview, Sonia Jordan — director of informatics and the supervisor of epidemiologists for Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health — said a contact does not necessarily involve everyone you work with in a particular building.
In determining a contact that is at medium-to-high risk of contracting the virus, the department uses a key guideline: Have you been in contact with the infected person for more than 10 minutes at a distance of less than six feet?
“We are looking at that sustained contact,” Jordan said. “Maybe you did meet at the water cooler and talk for 15 minutes. That would be a close contact.”
But Jordan made it clear that simply using shared space with the infected person does not make you a close contact that would be notified. Shared spaces have been an issue I’ve received a lot of questions about from readers. In particular, many large Lawrence workspaces have shared break rooms or lunch rooms. Jordan said, for example, if the person who ultimately tested positive routinely used the same lunch table just before you did, that would not be enough proximity to qualify you as a close contact who would be notified of the positive test.
That is a good example, though, of why businesses are urged to frequently disinfect shared spaces at their facilities.
“And there is a difference between cleaning and disinfecting,” Jordan said. “Cleaning is wiping the surface so it doesn’t appear dirty. We are asking businesses to disinfect, which means they are killing anything that lives on that surface.”
She said that could involve using sanitation wipes or a mixture of one part bleach to 10 parts water to clean surfaces. Ideally, she said, allow the solution to sit for a while before wiping it off, or simply let it air dry.
But, because there is no regulation that requires businesses to undertake a specific cleaning process during times of a pandemic, employees have to trust that best practices are being followed.
“I understand the whole situation is making a lot of people uneasy, including myself,” Jordan said. “I would appeal to everyone’s sense of responsibility, almost like a civic duty in this situation.”
Jordan said she believes there are both businesses and individuals who understand what is at stake.
“We are trying to protect our vulnerable populations,” she said. “We are trying to protect our hospital so that LMH doesn’t have that incredible surge of patients and become overwhelmed. … In Douglas County we are doing a great job of this, but this is a marathon. It is not a sprint, and people need to remember that.”
People who are deemed to be a close contact of an infected person — that almost always includes people who live in the same home or have been a sexual partner of the patient, Jordan said — are required to self-quarantine for 14 days. If symptoms develop during that time period, the quarantine could be longer.
Of note, people who are deemed to be a close contact of someone who has tested positive aren’t told the identity of the person who has tested positive, Jordan said. For example, if you were deemed to be a close contact of a co-worker who has tested positive, the health department wouldn’t disclose that information to you. Rather, you would just be told that you have come in close contact with someone who has tested positive and need to quarantine.
Why the secrecy? Privacy issues, health department officials said.
When the Journal-World began hearing talk in the community that there was a positive test at Berry, I reached out to the health department to confirm whether a positive case had been linked to Berry’s facility. The department said it couldn’t comment on the location of any positive case, which was different than what the department had done the prior week. That week, the department confirmed it had not had any positive tests linked to the Maximus call center in Lawrence.
Health department officials this week cited generic health privacy provisions that prevent them from releasing such location-based information about positive cases. While HIPAA laws still remain intact, the federal government also has produced some guidelines that allow for some exceptions to the HIPAA privacy provisions during the pandemic.
And some health agencies have been releasing more detailed location-based information. For instance, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment on Tuesday afternoon announced that multiple cases had been reported by people who attended the Kansas East Jurisdiction’s 2020 Ministers and Workers Conference at the Miracle Temple Church of God in Christ in Kansas City, Kan. in mid-March.
As for why the location of cases could be released in that instance but not with a case involving a local business, a spokesman for the local health department said the difference primarily was related to difficulties health officials were having in determining all potential contacts that may have been exposed to the virus at the ministers conference.
More coverage: Coronavirus (COVID-19)
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