Quick: Think of everyone you’ve come in contact with or have been in close proximity to over the past two weeks. How accurate is your recollection? Think you may have left someone out? Most likely.
Despite the miserable accuracy we can expect from such questioning, many American companies are relying on this method to query employees who might have a Covid-19 infection. Using this information gleaned from the sick employee, they are then reaching out to coworkers who could have been exposed. This is all in an attempt to protect the health privacy of the sick employee if the employee doesn’t agree to have their name circulated.
The novel coronavirus is a freely available pathogen spreading like wildfire. We can’t run or hide from it if we don’t know where it is. Knowing who has it or may have it is critical information that changes our behavior from simple « social distancing » to full-out self-quarantine, a major leap. It’s critical every American have the information they need to pull the quarantine trigger.
If you know or suspect you have Covid-19, please, post this information to your social networks, and ask your employer to freely share this information. Consider it your social responsibility. You could save lives. And by adding your name to the mix, you’re further ensuring that nobody feels discriminated against for coming down with a virus that is on track to rapidly infect millions of us.
There are innumerable ways in which efforts to privatize pandemic infection status ends up affecting many others. For example, I was recently involved in a case where someone exposed to a sick coworker went on to visit a hospitalized family member in another state. The visitor unknowingly put the patient at risk because the suspected Covid-19 employee had forgotten to include the hospital visitor’s name on the list of contacts the employer needed to notify.
This mislabeling of a pandemic as private is happening thousands of times every day thanks to unclear interpretations of three federal laws.
But even in HIPAA-covered hospitals, we have to disclose patient/employee infection statuses to coworkers if an employee thinks they have the virus or has been exposed. It’s critical that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issue guidance to all American companies and organizations immediately to prevent the fatal error of secrecy from continuing day after day, week after week as we stare down this pandemic.
The ADA lets employers ask about symptoms, check temperatures and so on, but the EEOC’s guidance is unclear about whether employers must keep infected status secret. EEOC states that disability-related information must be kept confidential and provides the example that « asking an individual about symptoms of a cold or the seasonal flu is not likely to elicit information about a disability » but fails to clarify that Covid-19 is not a disability.
With Covid-19, the virus isn’t being spread through blood or sexual contact. Mere proximity is all that’s needed. Nobody with Covid-19 can reliably know whom they have put at risk.
Given our woefully insufficient testing and hospital capacity, the one best way we have to protect each other right now is to announce our status from rooftops and Facebook feeds alike. If Tom Hanks and Prince Charles can do it, you can, too!
Federal agencies should further destigmatize the matter by updating legal guidance for laws that clearly didn’t presage a pandemic where transparency is the key to survival.
Helping as many people as possible survive this pandemic is everyone’s job. Being upfront about whether you may have the virus is how you show up for work.