March 30, 2020

There has not been a lot of guidance published on what a workplace should do if they find out that an employee/visitor was diagnosed. The federal government issued a very early notice reminding employers that health information is private and subject to privacy laws. Additionally, the Center for Disease Control published guidance for identification of levels of risk for those exposed to someone with a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis (The guidelines are located here). However, questions still remain. Below are common questions we are hearing from our clients and our answers.

  1. Should you tell your employees?

Yes, however you should not identify the individual by name. The person’s medical information should be treated as confidential and afforded the same protections as any other employee’s medical information. If you know of specific individuals who were present at the same time, then you may want to provide them with a statement that does not identify the person as well. Below is a sample statement.

“We have been advised that a customer, client, or employee has tested positive for COVID-19. We are aware that this individual was in physical proximity to many of you on the [insert date]. We value the health and safety or our employees and their families. We encourage all employees to continue to monitor any symptoms, stay home if you are sick, and follow the guidelines provided by the CDC. All employees should continue to abide by any Shelter in Place Orders and work remotely, wash their hands often, avoid close contact with other people, and clean and disinfect your workspace. Should you have any questions please reach out to ____________.“

  1. Should you ask the person who they came into contact with while at your place of business?

While you can ask this individual who they came in contact with, you should use caution to insure the anonymity of this individual. Consider whether publically disclosing who they came in contact with will reveal the identity of the person. It may be best to ask where this person was while in the office, and then add that to the statement above. We understand that Travis County is investigating the contacts of individuals who have been diagnosed with COVID-19. An investigator from Travis County Health & Human Services or the City of Austin may reach out to people with whom the person had close contact and may reach out to you to advise you of the person’s presence in your workplace.

  1. Should you require employees who came in contact with this individual to be quarantined?

Quarantine/isolation orders are issued from the local governments (i.e., the City of Austin or Travis County). Additionally, healthcare providers and local health authorities may instruct an individual to isolate or quarantine. Employers should refer to the CDC’s risk matrix to determine if any employees had a medium or high level of exposure to the person with the COVID-19 diagnosis. According to the CDC, those living in the same household as an individual who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 have a high risk of exposure. Individuals who have had close contact (within 6 feet of a COVID-19 case for a prolonged period of time) with a person with symptomatic laboratory confirmed COVID-19 have a medium risk of exposure. The CDC recommends that anyone with medium risk or high risk exposure to self-isolate. 

Accordingly, employers should follow CDC guidelines and request that any employees who had close contact with the individual to self-isolate for 14 days. Regardless, you should continue to encourage all employees to stay home if they are sick and to abide by any Shelter in Place Orders. If an employee advises you that they have symptoms of COVID-19, then you should instruct the employee to remain home, seek treatment, and to follow the orders of their healthcare professional.

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