what should our employer share with us when a coworker tests positive for COVID-19?

A reader writes:

I have learned from reading here that HIPAA does not generally apply to employers, it applies to health care providers and some other agencies. And I think you have said that HIPAA does not prevent employers from telling people about positive COVID-19 tests within an organization — it protects names, but not the fact that there have ben some positive tests. (Me: Yes, that’s all true!)

But HR at my employer said HIPAA prevented them from telling us if any employees tested positive for COVID-19. They said they would do their own contact tracing and tell employees who worked with someone who tested positive about it, but would not tell anyone else. I checked with coworkers and, with their support, pushed back with HR, saying that I felt I should have been informed because I worked closely with someone who worked with the positive employee. In other words, their contact tracing and mine didn’t sound aligned.

I also learned that they only told employees who worked with the positive employee for the last day before HR was told. Not, for example, anyone who worked with them for the previous 5 to 10 days, although evidence suggests that people are contagious that long. In an office our size (40 people in two buildings), we might have had contact that HR and managers don’t realize. So I also pointed out to HR that we all assumed that we would not be told the name of anyone who tested positive but that we would be told about positive tests so we would have the information we needed to decide if we felt safe.

In the end, HR said that they would be able to tell us about positive tests (so they are acknowledging HIPAA does not apply?). They said they would have managers tell us that someone tested positive instead of sending an email. Some managers did and some did not, but by that time, gossip had done the job more quickly, fully, and accurately and I chalked it up to everyone learning. And I was pleased that pushing back as a group had worked.

But I just learned that a second coworker did catch COVID from the first one and we have not been told. And today, a coworker told me that a person in their department is out and is waiting on a COVID test. I am a department of one and I sit 10 feet from the group the person works in, though I am not in that group. We are eight hours a day in a shared space the size of a large classroom. I wish I had been told about the positive test and about the possible positive.

Does HIPAA prevent them from telling us that there was an employee with a positive test? Am I off in my expectations? Can you help me understand this from the HR perspective?

HIPAA does not prevent your employer from telling you that someone tested positive. In fact, as you originally assumed, HIPAA isn’t in play here at all, because HIPAA only applies to medical providers and and health plans, and in most cases not employers. (The exception to that is if your employer is self-insured, where the company pays individual claims itself — but that’s not the case with most.) People often misunderstand HIPAA and think it’s a general medical privacy law, but it’s not … and while it’s not a big deal that normal people don’t realize that, it’s pretty disheartening that your HR department doesn’t.

But a different law is in play: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The agency charged with enforcing the ADA has said that while employers should indeed alert employees that a coworker has tested positive for COVID, under the ADA they cannot name the person.

An employer can ask the infected employee whether they are willing to have their name disclosed to others, as long as it’s truly voluntary. (But if the person says no, the employer must respect that.) Employers also are supposed to ask the person who tested positive for a list of people (employees, clients, vendors, etc.) who they came in contact with in the last 14 days in connection with their employment, as well as office floors they may have visited, whether they were in shared spaces like a break room, etc. An employer can then disclose that information (without naming the person).

And yes, your employer’s “contact tracing” sounds pretty weak. As you point out, they shouldn’t just be alerting people who had contact with the positive employee; they should be alerting people who those people had contact with, and so forth, because that’s how the virus works. If Robin worked closely with Joe, who’s now infected, and you work closely with Robin, you may have been exposed too. But frustratingly, the CDC’s advice to employers doesn’t seem to take that into account. The seem to only recommend that employers alert people who worked in “close proximity” (within six feet) to the infected person. Most of the legal guidance I’ve seen only suggests alerting employees who worked in close proximity with the infected person for a prolonged period of time (15 minutes or more) during the 48-hour period before the onset of symptoms. So yeah, this seems like a widespread hole and you’re right to point it out.

The CDC does say employers should send everyone in that group home to quarantine for 14 days to ensure the infection doesn’t spread, and it doesn’t sound like your employer did that. (It’s worth noting the CDC guidelines do differ for critical infrastructure workers, where asymptomatic employees who have been directly exposed to a confirmed case can continue to work if specific guidelines are met.)

Anyway, no, you’re not off in your expectations that your employer should be doing more. “We’ll have managers tell you about positive tests but not in email because we apparently don’t want it in writing” is troubling. It gets even more troubling when it turns out that not every manager bothered to follow through.

And it’s troubling as hell that they didn’t tell you a coworker who you sit near is out while awaiting testing.

They need a better system.

{ 180 comments… read them below }

  1. Detective Amy Santiago*

    I know I’m going to get skewered for saying this, but I think public health is more important than privacy and it’s bull that employers aren’t permitted to name individuals who have tested positive.

    1. bleh*

      I dunno. I’m a big privacy fan, but I somewhat agree with you. We’re talking about stopping / slowing the spread of a deadly virus, not selling shit on the internet (I’m looking at you google/facebook/everyone).

      1. valentine*

        If they don’t name names, they’re guaranteed to miss people. Someone might not remember how or when they varied their routine, and who all joined for lunch or was in the bathroom at the same time on which day. There may be people you mix up or who don’t make an impression, but are often present.

        1. CupcakeCounter*

          I just started my job in July so hardly anyone knows me – I would 100% be missed by a tone of people I’ve been in meetings with (all masked and socially distant but still) because I’m in the back corner taking notes and getting the lay of the land. I think my boss and the person training me would pass it on but there could be a delay depending on timing.

      2. Artctic*

        Given how people treat people with COVID (remember when this very blog suggested firing someone because their girlfriend had COVID was a smashing idea?) people will be far more reluctant to come forward and tell their employer if they know their name will be spread without their consent. If they have a mild case they may even report to work because otherwise they may be penalized by disclosure and shaming. They may also be less willing to get a test. It will make it more difficult to stop the spread not less.

        1. TamiToo*

          100% agree. There is a stigma with having COVID, and often people treat those that have it badly, or over-react to the news. For example, my husband tested positive for COVID. He had been in our office and simply walked by someone’s desk. When that person found out (through the grapevine) that he later tested positive she literally freaked out. She had no contact with him at all, he was wearing a mask, and he was much further than six feet from her. She wanted my boss to tell the whole office about it so that we could quarantine. It is irrational, but the fear is real. We are a staffing agency so we literally have people in and out all of the time, and we have no way of knowing if they are positive or not, and just not showing symptoms. Wear your mask, wash your hands, sanitize your workspace regularly, use hand sanitizer, and stay more than six feet away from others. Period.

      3. Amaranth*

        I also don’t get the implication that its shameful in contrast to everyone working together. Is there a general feeling that if you catch it, you’ve been careless? There are studies that indicate just being ‘down wind’ in the office airflow can be a problem.

        1. MCMonkeyBean*

          Yes, absolutely many people will judge and resent someone who has been named as someone who may have passed it on.

      4. Lavender Menace*

        Patient privacy has more to it than simply selling shit on the Internet. Shady employers with health information about people can fire or marginalize an employee with a chronic health condition or a disability without these laws in place.

        1. MayLou*

          That’s an excellent point in general, but we’re talking about Covid, a viral infection that is caught by existing in the same airspace as an infected person. It isn’t a disability, it isn’t transmitted through activities that have a moral dimension to them, and it is all over the place. It feels different from employers sharing details about someone having fibromyalgia or being HIV positive or having MS, all things that can’t be transmitted simply by breathing nearby. Maybe I’m being naive about how much stigma there is around Covid?

          1. Laid Off In Coronaland*

            >It isn’t a disability

            A condition doesn’t have to be a disability for the ADA to be involved – they are there to insure you are not discriminated against because of any medical diagnosis or condition, whether it’s a disability or not. For example, neither pregnancy nor, say, cancer is considered a disability in and of itself (although either condition and associated medical interventions can create temporary or permanent disabilities). But if a current or potential employer discriminates against you because you have/had cancer or are/plan on becoming pregnant, the ADA will absolutely come down on them for it. Same is true for contagious diseases. If you have COVID-19, the ADA will step in if your employers try to use that as an excuse to fire you, demote you, or otherwise change your professional position/workload/standing in a way that is discriminatory and not medically necessary due to your diagnosis – for example, moving you off of a major project that you could just as easily work on from home, just because ‘we prefer to give it to someone who’s going to be in the office’ (i.e. the old “butts in seats at the office > butts at seats at home” mindset), or demoting or otherwise penalizing you for lodging a complaint if you contracted COVID-19 after they failed to implement proper PPE and cleaning.

            >it isn’t transmitted through activities that have a moral dimension to them

            Evidently you’ve missed the entire mask/don’t mask as personal belief indicator debacle then, or the whole “you should be willing to die for the economy and if you’re not you’re a lazy bum who hates America” debate, not to mention the whole left/right split between “covid is a real threat we need to take strong action against for the public safety” vs “it’s a hoax/propaganda/flu/no big deal and anyone who tries to say otherwise or mandate any precautions is just trying to take away my freedom.” Because right or wrong, there are a whole hell of a lot of morality-based social assumptions and implications wrapped up in the covid epidemic, many of which are specifically focused on behaviors like mask-wearing, work-related activities such as equipment sharing and distancing, proper cleaning and sanitation, and so on that directly contribute to and affect transmission.

            These include real and potentially work-impacting judgements made about your character, intelligence, personal and religious beliefs, professional dedication and, yes, morality (in a variety of directions, depending on where you or the person judging you stands on the ‘covid is a thing/covid isn’t a thing’ spectrum) based on whether or not you mask/distance/etc, how much of a “team player” you appear to be based on how your response to safety protocols or lack thereof (like making choices like opting to work from home in a work culture that overtly favors face-to-face office-based work even when it’s not necessary), how willing and how far employers/businesses are to follow guidelines that might interfere with business and revenue, how those protocols affect and are perceived by their employees, how willing employees are to put themselves at risk to benefit the bottom line or “the company’s image,” and so on.

            Employees have been threatened by managers and even fired for taking the CDC-recommended time off due to a positive test or while waiting for test results to come back (this happened to *10* workers at a single local restaurant near me, and in that field of work names get around – if you get branded as a slacker or troublemaker in one kitchen, soon everyone in the entire local restaurant scene will know). There are workplaces who are demanding employees do NOT wear masks and PPE even despite state and local orders to the contrary or who are just not enforcing proper protocols either because there’s no way to do it and stay open or they are “taking a stand” against them (and ditto for names of ‘squeaky wheels’ getting around both the business environment and their social spheres). There are people being left out of important projects or other professional activities because they opted to work from home instead of in-office. And so on.

            Naming those with positive tests under the current work vs covid context in the U.S. really DOES carry a significant risk of altering behavior on the employee, colleague and employer sides. If you’re coming up for promotion in a competitive workplace, do you really want your name associated with the positive covid ID that shut the business down during it’s busiest time, costing everyone significant losses in commissions and missed income? If you work in a conservative company where many believe covid is all an overblown hoax or ‘liberal propaganda”, having your name associated with a positive test could (and has, according to some first-hand stories I’ve read) result in significant levels of professional backlash, personal attacks from colleagues, the creation of a hostile workplace, social ostracization both in and out of work, and loss of work status (promotions, raises, connections drying up, projects being assigned elsewhere, etc). And so on. The stories I’m reading every day of how a positive test resulted in workplace resulted in discrimination, hostility or intrusiveness has been frankly mind-boggling.

            This is just the reality we live in. It’s not right. It’s not fair. But it is very real.

    2. Ranon*

      There are also public health consequences for naming people- it can make people less likely to come forward for fear of community shaming and make people less likely to get tested at all, thus exacerbating spread. There’s not a clear case that naming individuals is better than not.

      1. Quill*

        Yeah, for most things, location and other anonymous data is better. Because you don’t always know *who* you sat down to lunch a table over from, but “an employee on floor 3 tested positive, they were in the building on floor 3 and in the cafeteria on monday and tuesday, anyone who was in those areas please return to working from home” is going to be more effective (because it casts a wider net of caution) than people who didn’t see Tiffany from Accounting at the table next to them.

        1. This is the OP*

          I think part of the issue for my employer is they are not approving working from home. They are allowing the 2 weeks of EPSL leave and we use sick leave (if any) after that. We are not essential workers and when we closed back in April and May, they paid us but did not allow WFH. We all know these kinds of policies are likely to cause ppl to not say when they test positive or have symptoms.

          1. tangerineRose*

            What is wrong with companies when they can allow WFH and don’t?! Do they not understand how COVID-19 works? Do they just not care?

        2. kt*

          This is what my company does: “An individual who sat in the northwest corner of building 1 tested positive and was last on premises on August 13. If you work in areas A, B, or C, you must work from home for the next two weeks.”

          But overall I’m really happy with how my employer is dealing with it: we just work from home, there’s no loss of PTO or sick time or anything; the cafeteria isn’t open and people are generally not mingling across areas; etc.

          1. Kyrielle*

            Our offices are closed now except for a few people who literally handle the building maintenance, etc.

            But before that, we had a possible case – testing was later negative – and they handled it almost exactly as you describe. Building, floor, had been to the cafeteria. I assume they reached out more directly to people who had been in meetings with the person, but that I don’t know; I don’t work in the same building.

    3. Junior Dev*

      Naming individuals would be detrimental to public health if it leads people who suspect they are sick to hide it from their employer for fear of stigma, mistreatement, or the fact that they were infected being distributed more widely outside the workplace.

      1. London Lass*

        That’s true, but in practical terms it will often be obvious who the infected person is, because their co-workers will notice they are not in the office. Particularly in a small workplace, it can be impossible to alert contacts that they have been exposed with them being able to put the pieces together themselves. I experienced this personally 10 years ago when I had a serious infectious disease and several of my colleagues had to be told they were at risk because it took a long time for me to be diagnosed and I had worked with many people while symptomatic, thinking it was nothing serious. The office did it by the book and didn’t name me, but I was open about it because trying to keep my identity a secret when I’d just disappeared off sick would have been absurd (this was a big company, but within my department it was obvious). Acting like it was something to be ashamed of would have made it worse for myself.

        1. EventPlannerGal*

          Right, but that was your choice and your preference based on the office you worked in. There are a lot of reasons someone might prefer their name not to be disclosed.

          1. London Lass*

            My point is that sometimes when there are obligations to disclose certain information for public health reasons, it can become impossible to also maintain anonymity at the same time. I wouldn’t have been as open about my own health normally, but under those circumstances the idea of confidentiality started to feel like a bit of a joke, and I don’t see how it could have been done otherwise. The illness itself was known because people were notified of it. My identity was known because I was off sick. What what I have gained by pretending people didn’t know?

    4. ezee*

      You can share with employees that they have been exposed without sharing who they were exposed by. I’m sure much of the time it’s obvious because that person has (presumably) been out waiting on results, but I don’t think knowing WHO exposed you is as important as knowing that you WERE exposed.

      1. BottleBlonde*

        True, but the person who tested positive might not remember that they had contact with you a week earlier. If they forget and they don’t list you, you might never be notified.

        1. Esmeralda*

          They are reasonably likely to remember that: I was at my desk for 8 hours a day from monday thru wednesdy since the beginning of July, I eat lunch almost every day in the cafeteria/at my desk/at the greasy spoon down the street and usuall from 11 am to noon, I can’t remember what day it was but I did go to the other building to pick up supplies from the store room on the third floor.

          You don’t need to have names every time: you need to know where and when (reaosnably well) and from that you can get names: Send out an email stating that if you ate in the cafeteria in the last two weeks between 11 am and noon, etc… Unless an office has a free for all no one every sits in the same place twice hot desking situation, it’s easy enough to figure out who was nearby.

        2. Lavender Menace*

          You might not remember, either, if someone just said “Julian Smith is the one with the covid!” I feel like it’s equally likely that they don’t remember you as it is that you don’t remember them.

          1. Beth Jacobs*

            Right. Say there’s a 30 % chance they forget and a 30 % chance you forget. If they’re only asking the COVID-positive worker, there’s a 30 % chance you won’t be identified as a contact. If they ask the COVID-positive worker and also tell everyone the name, there’s only a 9 % chance both of you have forgotten and you won’t be identified as a contact. 9 % is a smaller number than 30 %!

            1. BottleBlonde*

              Yes, this was my thought. I was also thinking that it would be harder for one employee to remember every person that they came in contact with in the past two weeks than it would be for each employee to remember whether they had been in contact with *one* specific employee. Maybe that depends though.

        3. Heather*

          The first person in my office to be symptomatic completely lied about who he had unmasked contact with when questioned, so attempts at anonymous contact tracing were worthless.

    5. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      The rules exist to avoid discrimination. We don’t regularly operate in a world that’s deep in a pandemic, so it’s skewed with our data points today verses the nature of the law.

      We all need to take a mental trip back to the 80’s where HIV patients were treated like you couldn’t share an office with someone without “catching the bug”.

      We have to protect others against the anti-science world who runs with it and actively harms others with that information.

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        Logically I get that.

        But I don’t think the comparison to HIV works because you couldn’t catch that by someone breathing on you. It’s not the same at all.

          1. BottleBlonde*

            Yes, but if you actually *could* get HIV that way, those actions wouldn’t be considered wrong, would they? In other words, it’s not wrong to treat a positive COVID patient like you can’t share an office with them because…you really shouldn’t be sharing an office with them.

            1. Natalie*

              It’s not really a question of moral rightness, the issue is effective public health strategy. If naming people who are infectious has a stigmatizing effect (and it often does, whether or not that’s logical), some people will avoid finding out whether they are infectious and/or won’t voluntarily tell their employer that they’re potentially infectious.

              1. JerryTerryLarryGary*

                Exactly. We already have an issue of people not wanting to list people they came into contact with-and where-fir contact tracing. Having patients sharing information needs to be as low barrier as possible. No name and shame.

        1. Ali G*

          The point is people were treating HIV/AIDS patients as if one could get it by touching them, using a toilet after them etc. I grew up in the 80s and I remember very clearly people behaving this way.

          1. Quill*

            I remember getting the lecture on what HIV was in like… ’97? by that point there was way more information around but the lecturer seemed very, very tired of telling people that you couldn’t catch it from a toilet seat.

            “Don’t touch needles, don’t touch blood” was the whole upshot of that lecture. (We were like six, so…)

            1. Anlina S.*

              It’s 2020 and we’re still correcting HIV (mis)information from the ’80s and ’90s. It’s heartbreaking, but there’s plenty of people who still believe that it’s not safe to hug someone or use the same set of dishes as someone who has HIV.

              In so many communities, there’s still huge stigma around talking about it at all. So even getting people to be receptive to hearing information can be a challenge.

              1. Cercis*

                And sadly, for a lot of us, the stigma is really rooted hard in our brains. I know I’m safe from catching HIV, but I still found myself washing my hands much more carefully when I volunteered at a rehab center for folks with HIV. It was one of those biases that I wasn’t even fully aware I had.

                I grew up in the 80s and the Ryan White era, so the sexual/homosexual stigma was somewhat mitigated, but there’s still that “what if I have an open wound and they have an open wound” mentality that sunk in at that time (I know that I’m safe, that even an accidental needle stick, assuming I was handling needles, which I don’t, would be unlikely to transmit, so it’s not a matter of knowledge, it’s just a matter of overcoming that early fear conditioned response).

          2. Keymaster of Gozer*

            I had people in 2005 refusing to come to my wedding because my cousin was coming who has HIV. They were convinced it was a ‘risk to their children’ and ‘better to be safe where kids are involved’.

            I’ve never spoken to those people again but I know they’ve not changed their attitude one bit. Sickening.

            1. allathian*

              Oh my goodness, that’s awful. Especially these days when HIV is no longer the death sentence it used to be, provided you have access to good medical care. Some patients have been living with HIV for decades and for some, the virus has effectively disappeared from their bodies.

              1. Keymaster of Gozer*

                Yup, my cousin is still here and alive, he got HIV about 20 years ago from a bloke he was seeing at the time. We often compare how many meds we’re each on to stay alive :)

                (He was winning, until I got epilepsy and schizophrenia and pulled ahead :p )

        2. Smithy*

          Where the comparison does come into play is that where HIV/AIDS stigma is high, people are less likely to be tested or to share test results. Additionally, if you look at HIV and COVID as being perceived as having “no cure” – then all getting tested achieves is putting you at risk for social and community stigma.

        3. NotAnotherManager!*

          Despite years of research and much better objective, scientific knowledge and major advances in treatment, there are still people – and not a small number of them – that treat people that have HIV (or people they think have HIV) terribly.

          We’ve already seen with the COVID-denier population that logic and facts don’t dictate how people behave. Having grown up in the 80s during the AIDS crisis and seeing how awful people could be based on their beliefs versus scientific fact give me a great deal of pause on the publicly naming COVID patients issue.

          And, at the bottom of it, it makes me furious that the national response to COVID is so shitty that we have employers running the show on stuff like this (when they have no business being in the contact tracing business unless they are actually the health department) due to the total dearth of leadership.

        4. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          Before the scientists worked out how it was transmitted, there was a lot of confusion and stigma and general paranoia. It took them a good while to suss it out, because of it being such a complex disease.

      2. LGC*

        We don’t even need to take a mental trip that far. You just need to go to…Brooklyn. Or the Shore.

        I was just reading an article about how people are not cooperative with contact tracers in New York City because they were afraid of punishment or being deported or other things. Down on the Jersey Shore, there was an outbreak at an illicit house party and a lot of the attendees didn’t cooperate because they didn’t want their friends to get in trouble.

        Ideally, this shouldn’t be a problem. But when you’re dealing with disease – especially one with stigma, like AIDS (or…COVID-19), you have to tread carefully.

        1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          Similarly, there was an employee at a strip club in Toronto who got infected. Most of the patrons had left false numbers so contacting them was a nightmare, they had to simply publicise the fact in the hopes that some might get themselves tested.

    6. Taura*

      I’m not seeing where names are more helpful than decent contact tracing though? In this case, obviously a name would’ve been more helpful than what actually happened. But in general I don’t see how announcing Bob tested positive is going to help if I don’t know who Bob is or which department he works in or if he was visiting the home office etc etc

    7. midnightcat*

      But you don’t need to name them to give people all the information they need. You just need to give them the information.

    8. Roscoe*

      I don’t think so. I think its more important that proper precautions are taken to deal with it after a positive test than to name the person

    9. ...*

      I personally don’t agree. People have become extremely violent towards infected individuals in some places and as long as the person is quarantining themself, I think they’ve fulfilled their obligation.

      1. Mr. Tyzik*

        Agreed. I don’t want anyone blaming me (or suing me) because they are convinced I gave them COVID if I were identified as a sick coworker. If I tested positive and worked in an office, it’s more important that the people who came into contact with me are traced, not my identity.

        Hell, for all I know, contact tracing can narrow down the individual based on the locations and questions.

        1. ...*

          It kind of basically can. I know who at work is out for Covid tests but I would never share that info with other people, although, we kind of all know when Suzy is going to work from home for 3-5 days, oh wait now she can come back after two because “things changed” (got negative test) or she needs to WFH extra because tests are taking extra.

      2. EventPlannerGal*

        Agreed. I have also noticed (including in some letters and comments on this blog) that the response to someone being diagnosed with COVID is often to dissect their every move to prove that it was their fault that they caught it, and a pinning of the blame for any and all subsequent cases on that person whether it’s likely or even possible that they were the person who spread it. It’s a really ugly tendency that I hope does not continue.

        1. ...*

          Yes, I have noticed it here too. Not just naming the person, but there has been some major shaming going on. Im not saying that people should disobey guidelines or not be careful, but the feedback on the “I changed my teams schedules because they went out to dinner” letter made me more resolute that naming and shaming just has a negative effect.

          1. EventPlannerGal*

            Yes, totally, and that letter about the guy who quarantined with his girlfriend. Of course everybody should be following the rules and staying safe! But even on here where we have the most minimal details about why people have made certain choices there’s this wild speculation and declarations that of course they should have done X or why didn’t they do Y, what a terrible person. I can only imagine how much worse it’s going to be in person when you have people’s interpersonal dynamics and histories in play.

    10. Bilateralrope*

      What good does it do you to know which of your coworkers is infected ?

      Though I’m operating from the New Zealand perspective, where the contact tracing is very aggressive. As in, if one person in a workplace returns a positive result, everyone there is getting tested.

      1. JM60*

        What good does it do you to know which of your coworkers is infected ?

        It can greatly you know whether or not you were exposed, and how much you were exposed.

        If every workplace would automatically have everyone quarantine at home for two weeks and test negative before returning if a single employee had the virus, then naming names wouldn’t be as useful. However, most American employers aren’t doing that.

        1. TL -*

          There I disagree – people are really bad at risk assessment, and the whole world is anxious right now. Contact tracing should be done by properly trained people, who can make decisions and given advice based on solid evidence and scientific findings.

          I realize lots of places aren’t doing contact tracing properly, but the issue there is not that they’re not naming names; the issue is they’re not doing proper contact tracing in the first place.

          1. JM60*

            Contact tracing should be done by properly trained people

            But “properly trained people” would be scientists*, not your average HR person. In the absence of the company having these properly trained HR people readily available to provide timely contact tracing, knowing who was positive can help individuals understand their level of risk.

            And sure, some people are anxious, but withholding a name probably is going to cause as much anxiety as it prevents (because many people who weren’t exposed will worry that they were). Even if withholding a name did lessen anxiety, I’m not sure if that ‘s a good thing. A hyper anxious person without COVID-19 staying home for a couple weeks is better than too many people physically going into work.

            * And some other people with extensive science training (I’m thinking relevant undergraduate degree or higher).

            1. TL -*

              No, contact tracing should be developed by epidemiologists and scientists, but you can train most people to do contact tracing properly once you’ve set the standards (which have been set and proven by experts.)

              Your average HR person could absolutely go through COVID-19 contact tracing training and be good at it. They just need training. (Or they could work with other public health bodies.)

              1. New Jack Karyn*

                Yes–a friend of mine who is certainly not an epidemiologist (or a scientist of any kind) is now working as a contact tracer. She did a bunch of training, and she’s now making phone calls. She’s very kind, and easy to talk to, non-judgmental. I think she’ll be great at it.

              2. LGC*

                I think the bigger problem is that they’re doing it as HR, and not…you know, for the community. This isn’t JM60’s direct point – and you’re right that just because they’re not scientists doesn’t mean they’re incapable. But the bigger issue is that LW’s HR is acting like a shadow health department, which I find EXTREMELY problematic.

                tl;dr – if HR wants to play Contagion, I hear NYC is hiring.

              3. JustaTech*

                My mom (not a scientist, not HR) did the Johns Hopkins contact tracing training through Coursera just so she could understand what was involved. It’s like a 4 hour course.

                There’s a reason that contact tracing is a job with training. It’s not hard, but you do need to know the best practices on how to do it effectively and confidentially. Public health folks have spent a long time figuring out how to do this in a way that is most successful at getting people to be honest about their contacts.

              4. JM60*

                Even so, I’d be hesitant to trust HR to do contact tracing. Their interest lies with maintaining the profitability of the business, not the health of the employees or the broader public (except to the extent that disease spreading among their employees hurts profitability). So they may opt in favor of a less aggressive actions if they deem that best for the bottom line of the organization.

                Also, if Bob tests positive for COVID-19, he might not remember that he stopped by my cubical for 15 minutes on Tuesday. But I might. So even if HR is properly trained and is properly prioritizing the health of the employees and the public, they may not have all the information (such as Bob coming to my cubical) if they keep the information too close to their chest.

    11. OtterB*

      My husband was kind-of-maybe exposed at work a couple of weeks ago. The organization announced, I think, that there had been a case in Department X. My husband doesn’t work in Department X and is in a different building, but he’d been over there several days before and spent a while in someone’s cubicle talking about a project. He called the supervisor of that department and asked, “Is it Fred? I need to know, because I spent some time with Fred.” Supervisor confirmed that it was, indeed, Fred. This probably wouldn’t work for a larger organization, but seems like a middle ground between refusing information altogether and announcing names on an all-employee call or email. (Husband’s interaction was probably too long before the coworker fell ill to have been exposed, but in an excess of caution he shifted back to WFH and canceled all outside-the-home contacts (food pantry volunteer, blood donation, etc.) and got tested. It was, as expected, negative but it’s good to have the confirmation.)

    12. Retail not Retail*

      I super agree because the first person from my department to test positive is one of those who hates masks and doesn’t wear his properly even when sharing tight spaces with others.

      I mean he was telling people but if he wasn’t, we’d have to assume since we weren’t contacted that we’re safe.

      Additionally, the exposure time has been shrunk to 48 hours here.

      1. Retail not Retail*

        This is a mess of a post – since no one was contacted, we’d assume the positive employee followed social distancing measures diligently or that he’s been gone for 2 days. (Only 2 people have been gone for 2 days this week.)

        Since we know who it is (he’s telling people), people are freaked out because they do share close space with him on a daily basis.

        I just think it makes a difference to know whether the person was considerate or not.

    13. TL -*

      If contact tracing is done correctly, and social distancing and masks are enforced, you don’t need to violate privacy (though, of course, people may be able figure out who it is.)

    14. Catherine*

      I strongly disagree. I live in a community where people who catch Covid are being blamed and outright shunned or verbally harassed by coworkers and neighbors even after they recover. One recovered patient I know is considering moving to a new city to escape how he’s being treated.

      The general public at large can’t be trusted with the names of patients. It makes the patients victims of other people’s ignorance.

    15. Kate H*

      I agree wholeheartedly. My workplace is a LOT like this one. We had a positive case and even though the person self-quarantined when they found out they’d been exposed, by the time my manager told me he was able to say that it had been multiple weeks since the start of their quarantine and no one else had shown symptoms or tested positive. My workplace has three separate buildings, none of which are supposed to interact to prevent cross-contamination (although, in practice, people interact all the time), and I don’t even know which building they work in.

      I understand protecting people’s privacy but relying on the memory of one person to disclose every person they might’ve had contact with, during what could be a two-week period, is absurd. Not to mention I work for a small company and it’s not like people wouldn’t notice who is out and spread the word.

    16. Sacrificial Pharmacy Tech*

      I disagree, strongly, for a lot of the reasons others have stated below. Also, do you remember when covid first started being a big thing and people were treating those of us working in the healthcare front lines like crap and like we had the plague to the point that multiple healthcare workers were assaulted? And that was because people were afraid we would give them the virus. Take that fear and magnify it by 10 for someone who actually is positive.

      Anecdotally, when we’ve had people in different pharmacies testing positive and started to do the contact tracing, people are lying. All the retail pharmacies are threatening massive layoffs right now and everyone is terrified of being on the chopping block. People are not getting tested even when they have what could possibly be covid symptoms because they’re terrified of the backlash of taking out half the staff. And that’s not hyperbole; I’m currently in quarantine because one of my coworkers tested positive and the entire management staff and one other person are also out. The people who are left are furious with the person who is positive (everyone of course found out who it was by process of elimination) because there aren’t enough people to cover all the shifts from the multiple stores in our district who have quarantined staff, so they’re pulling ridiculous overtime or working even more dangerously shorthanded than we already are.

      Putting a target on someone’s back is not going to help an already volatile situation.

  2. yaba daba doo*

    We’ve had several employees out while waiting test results in the past few months (thankfully all negative) and our department and adjacent/effected departments have been told with the employee’s consent. However we are all told not to spread it around outside the departments and doing so would “be a violation of HIPPA” and we could be written up. I literally laugh because they could just write us up for sharing information shared privately but HIPPA is not a factor since we are not in anyway healthcare workers.

    Our entire company is not informed of pending results but if there is a positive result, the entire company will be made aware with the name withheld. Again, thankfully hasn’t happened yet but feels like a matter of time. For what it’s worth, I feel like we’re handling it well and have good plans in place but our HR literally does not understand HIPPA. Bonus, our company is not obligated to pay for employees to quarantine but they ask any employee that is sick or getting tested to stay home for 2 weeks and pay them their full salary even if they can’t work at home.

    1. Jimmy the Geek*

      One easy clue to help distinguish between genuine legal concerns, and management or HR departments making policy based on politicized nonsense they saw on an anti-mask Facebook page:
      “HIPAA” is an acronym for the “health care privacy and accountability act.”
      “HIPPA” is, possibly, a female hippo. Whatever it is, it has nothing to do with healthcare.

      1. Natalie*

        Fun fact, the P actually stands for Portability, not Privacy. Among other things, HIPAA allowed you to enroll in private insurance and have pre-existing conditions covered as long as you had been previously insured, which mattered a lot prior to the ACA.

    2. Artctic*

      That people cite the wrong law is pretty irrelevant. It is illegal under the ADA not HIPAA. 42 U.S.C. § 12112(d)(4)(C); 29 C.F.R. § 1630.14 (d)(4)(i)

      1. Nobby Nobbs*

        It’s relevant when it’s HR, AKA the people in charge of making sure the company obeys the law.

  3. Junior Dev*

    I have seen a TON of misconceptions around HIPAA regarding the pandemic, especially the idea that businesses cannot enforce mask requirements or ask whether someone has a medical/disability reason for not wearing a mask “due to HIPAA”. The chain grocery store my roommate works at was using HIPAA as an excuse to not enforce people wearing masks inside stores, even though it is required by state law now. They’re trying to figure out how to report the situation to OSHA (and I know a lot of other people are struggling with getting help from OSHA right now, as well)

    Alison, if you have time it would be really helpful to see an explainer post about the implications of HIPA, the ADA, and OSHA for situations regarding work/businesses and COVID, and correcting common misconceptions.

    1. Eleaner*

      Safety person here! So OSHA key points:
      -Some states have federal OSHA, some have their own state programs, so they’re different regulations state to state.
      -OSHA doesn’t apply to most government employees, check your state to see what your state program is for them.
      -State Programs must exceed federal OSHA though, so if your state is doing something less strict, that’s not legal.
      -OSHA is currently only fining employers for COVID through the General Duty Clause (ie Employers must protect employees from things that could seriously harm or injury them and employees have to follow the rules)
      -OSHA has only issued FAQs and Publication 3990 (Guidance on Preparing
      Workplaces for COVID-19) so not really anything significant or enforcable for COVID.
      -The infectious disease standard has been on OSHA’s back burner to write regs for, for a while now
      -OSHA is down to under 1000 inspectors (which is around the levels they had in the early 70s when the agency was created) not sure how that works with all the state programs now, but if its federal OSHA, enforcement is way way down.
      Anything I missed? Can provide links, I just know that makes more work for Alison.

    2. Esmeralda*

      Our dean pointed out that no students at our large state university had requested going without a mask as an ADA accommodation. The dean also pointed out that in this pandemic, a reasonable accommodation under ADA is NOT “you don’t have to wear a mask” but rather, “we will provide your courses online/remote”.

      For our in-person classes, students must sit every week according to a seating chart, which can be used for contact tracing. Students who are exposed to someone w covid will be informed (and asked about their contacts) but will not be told where or when or who — and really, they dont need to be. There are lots of places they could be exposed :(

      1. Cercis*

        All these people saying “well, I have asthma and my doctor says it’s dangerous to wear a mask” – really, and your doctor is okay with you being out and about? You need a new doctor. Because my doctor encouraged me to stay home as much as possible, avoid enclosed spaces and ALWAYS wear a mask, stating “especially with your asthma.”

        1. Keymaster of Gozer*

          Worst one I encountered was a friend of a friend who stated that since his parents had worn masks but got Covid anyway, he wasn’t going to bother with a mask and encouraged others to stop wearing them and if confronted, say they have religious objections to masks.

          He only stopped telling people to claim they had a lung issue because others were pointing out that everyone with those issues was wearing face shields…and he disagreed with those too.

  4. Half-Caf Latte*

    On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have what has been dubbed the “email of shame:”

    Our multi-tenant 80-floor, two-tower high rise in the heart of the business district sends an email to the effect of “someone in the building tested positive, they were last in the building on Tuesday.” Zero info about what tower/floor they work on, or common areas visited. No use to anyone but does serve to make people anxious.

    1. Coverage Associate*

      We got one of those in March, which also included strange advice about avoiding farm animals and places where live animals are sold.

    2. sam*

      my office has been splitting the baby on this. If someone tests positive or has a potential exposure, the office notifies (without naming) the people they may have come into contact with directly.

      But then they ALSO send an email to the entire local office (so let’s say the person was in NY, everyone in the NY office would get the email), saying that someone in NY had a potential exposure, or tested positive (depending on circumstances), will give the general location of where they sat (floor, side of the building), and when they were last in the building.

      THEN, they send out a “weekly COVID update” to everyone at the company, that includes all of these notices, as well as things like new protocols for if/when we need to go in to the office for some reason. So I sitting in NY also see that there was a case in Minneapolis. Not something I need to know for personal health information, but possibly useful if I’m working with folks in Minneapolis in terms of potential disruption.

      Of course, 95% of us have been working from home since March and will be until at least January, so these notices are few and far between at this point – there were more in March/April as in-office operations wound down.

      But yes – other than curiosity there’s not a lot of reason to know who an individual is by name, and medical privacy is broader than just HIPAA.

      1. Frank Doyle*

        It sounds as though your company is doing everything by the book, exactly as Alison described in her answer. It sounds like they’re doing a good job, and you should be happy with them. Am I therefore misunderstanding what you mean by “splitting the baby?” Isn’t that a bad thing, where no one gets what they want and you end up with a split-in-twain baby?

        1. sam*

          your overthinking things. I was answering in the context of the prior all-or-nothing answers. “splitting-the-baby” is just an idiom.

          1. Taniwha Girl*

            Yes but it’s an idiom that means “two sides couldn’t compromise so they were stuck with a terrible result”. That doesn’t sound like what you mean, which is a “happy medium.”

            1. Pomona Sprout*

              I agree on the meaning of “splitting the baby.” That idiom definitely has negative connotations and implies exactly what you said, imo.

              “Splitting the difference” is a more neutral idiom that means neither side got ALL of what they wanted, but each got SOME what of they wanted, and the result was something both could live with. I’m guessing that is closer to what sam meant to convey.

  5. Nesprin*

    Worse yet- people with suspected exposure should be sent home immediately to avoid the 2nd and 3rd order effects. My company does a lot of things poorly, but they’ve been very very aggressive about keeping track of potential cases, and sending people who’ve interacted with potential cases home and out for testing.

    Despite 10k employees we have no transmission at work to date.

    1. Koalafied*

      Yes, OP, if the third does prove positive out of 40 employees – it’s starting to look like the virus is ripping through your company without adequate response or precautions being taken. 1 more is 10% of the staff, and it sounds like that’s not at all unlikely. I would be terrified to go to work under the conditions you describe. Are employees wearing masks?

      1. This is the OP*

        Yes to masks, sort of. Not everyone wears them properly. One person told me he is quite fearful of being at work and yet explained to me that he was taking his mask off in his workroom to eat (which is against company policy) and did not seem to realize this was against policy or that it was increasing his risk.

        1. allathian*

          Well, they do have to eat and drink somewhere, and if breakrooms and cafeterias are closed, where does that leave you?

          1. Tthankful for AAM*

            At our workplace, we are required to leave the building to eat. Most eat in their cars.

            But if you have an office with a door, you can eat in your office.

            1. Tthankful for AAM*

              Oh, I forgot, we have a huge meeting room, holds 150 or something, we can eat in there too.

  6. Coverage Associate*

    It sounds to me like the official advice for employers matches official practice of public health agencies. I know in my county that the government contact tracers are only interested in prolonged contacts. So, even if you can tell them, for example, the exact time you coughed on the cashier and the name of the cashier, officially, they don’t want that information.

    I haven’t been tested, let alone tested positive, because I have been social distancing, but for personal and professional reasons, I have read the protocols carefully. Hopefully they will alert more contacts if the index patient can provide them.

  7. Names changed for privacy*

    OMG, OP, welcome to the jungle. This has absolutely been my life for the last several months. We had a small outbreak a few months ago, and like you, no one expected to know who exactly was diagnosed, but we sure would have appreciated an overall count. The initial response from my grandboss (normally great) was that “we shouldn’t even be speculating.” Which is all well and good when you already know the answer and have your own office. Most of the information we got was from the grapevine. I think that over time, there was either enough push back or management realized how unrealistic that is, so after about a month we started getting occasional updates and they let us know if there were any confirmed cases. But there are still randomly people out here and there for a week getting tested and yeah, there is absolutely no mention of those.

    I will say that additional safety measures were put in place after the initial cases and there hasn’t been any transmission within the building since those first few cases (as far as I know). I’m still mad that some of those changes could have been put in place right away in March and probably eliminated at least 3 of the cases. We’re an essential business, and business has been booming throughout…hard not to feel like people were distracted by dollar signs and didn’t take it seriously enough.

  8. Brett*

    While it is technically not applicable inside the US, it might be important to note that a lot of multinational corporations are sticking to the much more strict EU GDPR instead of ADA. GDPR is much more restricting on the release of personal health information, and following GDPR in the US would be particularly restricting, since US law does not have many situations where the employer is mandated to disclose workplace exposure (and cross-border threats are not as likely as they are in the EU).

    1. Jennifer Thneed*

      Confused? The ADA is about accessibility, usually physical. It’s the Americans with Disabilities Act. Maybe you typo’d? Maybe you meant HIPAA? The GDPR is about data security. It’s the General Data Protection Regulation and it applies to every company, every industry, all personal information, not just medical information.

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        Oh, I have re-read Alison’s answer and now I understand why you discussed the ADA. The ADA isn’t usually about privacy but they are about preventing discrimination based on perceived or actual diagnoses.

  9. Mel_05*

    My employer sends out company wide emails to let people know someone tested positive and what building(s) they’ve been at. The buildings aren’t big, so that narrows it down without naming names.

    Most of us are working from home anyway, but it lets people know if they should be concerned.

  10. kristinyc*

    Back in late March, we got an email saying “Someone on the 10th floor has tested positive. But since it’s been 14 days since you’ve been in the office, we’re not going to say who.”

    I later found out it was the person who sits next to me (she’s fully recovered, thankfully!), who I saw/interacted with a lot on our last day in the office.

    I would think in a 40 person office, it’s likely that contract tracing would lead to MOST people interacting with someone who interacted with someone who has it, right? Surely people are using the bathrooms, kitchen, hallways, elevators, etc, even if they don’t directly work together.

    1. Ranon*

      Since official contact tracing guidelines require prolonged contact in closet proximity, in an office that is correctly following social distancing guidelines most employees should not count as contacts. If contact tracing yields a bunch of contacts that’s a really really bad sign in terms of how well the office is managing distancing.

      1. Coverage Associate*

        Which is really frustrating and confusing. We’re told to stay 6 feet apart, always, everywhere. But if you test positive, public health agencies will only ask you about prolonged contacts, apparently even if you could give information about short contacts. I am not going to know or remember everyone I walked past at the narrow point of the walking trail, but I will remember my friend dropped by for a few minutes to exchange packages of food. (We kept masks on and were outside.)

        1. Ranon*

          Well, it’s not measles- it’s significantly less infectious. That’s the contact tracing protocol because the primary way they think the disease is spread is through longer contact in close proximity. The odds of you getting it from someone walking past you on a trail is really really low because the period of contact is so short, it’s not worth the resources to try to trace those contacts.

        2. Chinook*

          I know Canada is rolling out an app that uses bluetoothbto sense ohones that have been in range of each other for a certain period of time. Walking by won’t trigger a record but possibly standing at a bus stop for 5 minutes would.

          I think this is the only happy medium. When you test positive you enter a code in your app and it sends a warning to every phone you recorded bejng around a message to get tested for possible exposure. No personal data is stored and I have to trust that our privacy commissioner has vetted this aspect of it.

          I don’t care who may have exposed me (and I too remember the stigma that went with HIV in the 80’s) but I do want to know if I am exposed. It is also why I am sort of ok with putting my name on a list of churchgoers, which feels all type of wrong as a Catholic who heard stories of Northern Ireland, because it mens Public Health can get the list from the parish if someone who attended later tests positive. I don’t need a name to blame, just an awareness to get tested.

          1. kt*

            A college friend of mine got together a group to create the NOVID app — it’s very privacy-conscious and basically just keeps track (in an anonymous way) of what other phones you’ve been near and then users can self-report COVID tests and alert appropriate contacts anonymously. Check it out! It could be a good solution for a particular office or group.

        3. Colette*

          It seems that how much of the virus you are exposed to makes a difference for COVID. Our public health office has specifically said that something like passing someone on the sidewalk is not a cause for concern.

          1. EvilQueenRegina*

            The police in my county (in England) said something along those lines when telling people not to step out into the road so they could get the 2m distance from anyone they passed on the pavement – they said that passing someone on the pavement briefly at less distance like that was less of a risk than stepping out into the road when cars are passing.

        4. Esmeralda*

          Walking past someone at the narrow point of the walking trail is not prolonged contact. Nor is meeting your friend for a few minutes outside while wearing masks.

          Prolonged contact , not just any contact.

        5. TL -*

          You’re told to stay 6 feet apart because they’re assuming human error in the guidelines.

          If you were told, “try to stay 6 feet apart; it’s okay if you’re a little closer with masks on; also don’t worry about minimal contacts like passing someone in the hallway,” first that’s super confusing and second that would get further relaxed in implementation.

          The guide that you want to get out is simple, clear, and will still be effective even if people assume there’s some wiggle room in it. So 6 feet apart, wear a mask, wash your hands. Simple, effective, and if you are 6+ feet apart without a mask (outdoors, at least), you’re likely to be okay; if you’re closer than 6 feet with a mask, you’re also likely to be okay.

          Humans are error-prone creatures, so the big secret is that public health guidelines are usually designed with an expectation of error.

  11. Jaid*

    My workplace will make an announcement stating that an employee is presumed positive, send everyone who worked on the same floor as that person home for the day, and then “clean” the floor.

    At one point, the powers that be wanted to send home just the side of the building where the person worked. When I heard my boss talk to his boss over speakerphone about it, politeness be damned, I called out that I sat at the the bottom of the stairs where most of the people came in at and you’re telling me to stay at work?

    Thankfully, someone decided to just send everyone on the floor home, but TPTB wasn’t too happy about it. Naturally we’re backed up on work and they looking at metrics more than people…

  12. Grumpy Lady*

    For those interested, Johns Hopkins has a free contact tracing course on Coursera. I took it and it explains the timeline for when you should be concerned with exposure to a positive person.

    I wont get into the specifics but its really the amount of time that you spend in close proximity to someone who is in a contagious state. I really feel like workplaces can just be more forthright about exposure. Some of us are high risk or go home to high risk family members.

  13. always in email jail*

    So actually, public health professional, and wanted to add that their contact tracing is not far off. Most Health Departments notify direct contacts of an ill individual, but do not notify contacts of contacts. The reasoning behind that is that those direct contacts should be quarantining, something the workplace should enforce, so telling you that you sit next to someone who was a contact of the sick person isn’t giving you any actionable information, because that contact should not be showing up for the next 14 days anyway. As a contact to a contact, you do not have to take any action, unless it turns out that contact becomes symptomatic or tests positive, in which case YOU are now a contact (possibly) and would be notified and asked to quarantine if appropriate.
    In other words, they weren’t doing anything too egregious by public health standards by only alerting people who had contact with the individual, not people who have contact with people who had contact with the individual.

    1. This is the OP*

      I can see from Alison and several posters why the contact of contacts are not told. In the case of my workplace, entire teams are working closely together and I define them as “contacts.” My workplace does not. So they are not being sent home (and would not be paid if they were). That makes me want to know there was a case in x bldg, in y dept, on specific day so I can evaluate my own risk.

    2. HR Exec Popping In*

      Thank you for posting this. It is challenging navigating this. Respecting privacy, being cautious and not feeding hysteria.

    3. The Gollux, Not a Mere Device*

      Does that change if the contact tracing is overloaded or otherwise delayed?

      I’m thinking of a situation where Alice caught COVID from an unknown source, and then interacted with Bob, Carol, Danny, and Fergus. Three days later, she has symptoms and goes in for a test.

      Alice is basically responsible, so she goes home and quarantines while she waits for the test, but she doesn’t call Bob, Carol, Danny and Fergus. While Alice waits for the test, those four people are going about whatever their COVID-era routines are, and could transmit the virus to people Alice doesn’t know. Ideally, she has the test results in an hour or two, and the person who tells her that sorry, she tested positive also asks for contact information, and starts making calls.

      As we move further from that ideal, in terms of test result turnaround times and the start of contact testing, is there a point where the contact tracer should be calling Danny and asking him for his recent close contacts, rather than waiting for his test results?

  14. Anon-mama*

    Was everyone wearing a mask? Were windows open? What’s your ventilation like in that building? If they can’t answer that question confidently, and if it’s one big room, anyone within airflow should quarantine (hopefully paid). Email HR that diagram (from an Atlantic article, I think) of an office wherein half the floor was exposed and had a huge cluster of cases from those who sat on the same side of the floor as just one positive person.

    1. This is the OP*

      Everyone is wearing masks (but many are not wearing them correctly and those who have offices are allowed to take them off), there are no windows, and it is essentially one large room/ventilation system.

      I have seen maps like that and that is why I think we all should know that a person working at x bldg in y dept tested positive on specific day.

      We don’t have paid quarantine except the EPSL and our sick leave and many staff dont have sick leave.

  15. health care worker*

    The definition of “exposed” in our health care system is: less than 6 feet away from the person for more than 10 min.

    If both you and the contact were wearing masks, then you aren’t considered to be exposed.
    If the sick person was not wearing a mask, but you are wearing both a mask and eye protection, then you aren’t considered to be exposed.

    1. Half-Caf Latte*

      We have definitions for healthcare worker exposure and community exposure, but it’s unclear whether offsite offices (not medical practices, but like IT and billing) are healthcare or community.

    2. This is the OP*

      What about being in a room the size of a classroom for the entire workday with 10 people? Increasingly I see info that suggests it is not just time within 6 feet of each other but time breathing the same air. That concerns me so I assume everyone is infected and take as many precautions as I can.

      1. kt*

        I think that’s a really legit worry, OP, and I don’t have any good suggestions but agree with you based on my understanding of the evidence at this point.

      2. AnonoDoc*

        You want to know about air exchanges per hour. At least 6 is necessary, more preferred BUT there should not be significant focused directional air flow (such as fans or vents blowing strongly so that certain people would be downwind of others). This should be fresh air coming in unless the office has significant in-line filtration (very few HVAC systems would have adequate filtration to be able to safely recirculate air in respiratory pandemic situations).

        1. Tthankful for AAM*

          I am in a corner of my open workspace. I got a fan and have it blow from the corner past me and into the room. So I hope I am blowing everyone’s airdroplets back at them. I feel safer but guilty.

          I dont know about air exchanges per hour at work, wish I did.

    3. Hopital worker*

      It seems like it should be the other way around. If the sick person is wearing a mask it provides much more protection than if you are wearing a mask.

      1. TL -*

        If you were wearing a mask and eye protection, you’re not going to touch your face and eyes after getting COVID-19 droplets (spit, people, it’s spit) on your hands from the sick person.

        Covering a sick person’s eyes does nothing; covering a well person’s eyes prevents them from rubbing them and infecting themselves.

  16. health care worker*

    Sorry, I hit send too soon. I was just going to say, the office practices and procedures that promote social distancing are really important. And also, the part of exposure that you have the most control over is your own protective equipment.

    1. Not a Dr, but my local health official is*

      If you want to look at some robust guidelines for Contact Tracing and Employee guidance, check out Santa Clara County, CA. They even provide instructional flyers for close contacts and not close contacts. (If unfamiliar with California – the County is in the Bay Area)

      We were groaning about them being onerous, until we needed them. Then the clarity was lovely.

  17. Exotrix*

    A) Healthcare (Admin) Worker and B) Recovered Covid Infection. I’m not a fan of the considering contacts of contacts suspect initially because time/distance are important. When my partner tested positive officially, my work did send the me home on furlough. I tested positive the next day. We did have more information than many because of the frequency of my partner’s company testing them, but masks and social distancing worked. We gave it to each other but we did not give it to anyone else. Honestly, you should be considering everyone positive and acting accordingly. Asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic are very much a thing. Wear a mask and social distance.

    As far as the contacts of contacts, by the time someone is testing positive, they have been for a several days. If there was a breakdown in PPE or social distancing, it’s really already too late.

    1. Exotrix*

      And yes, we did all of the things you are supposed to. We have no idea where we got it and probably never will.

    2. This is the OP*

      I do consider everyone positive and am working hard to physically distance from everyone and wear all the PPE I can, wash frequently, etc..

      I do wish my employer expanded their contact tracing to more than just a day or two before the person tested positive – but that seems to fit with the legal advice Alison pointed to.

      Also, while I can see that I am not defined as a contact if I sit within 10 feet of someone who was out awaiting a test, their team all sit within 4 feet of each other and none of them were told. So I still think my employer is not handling this as well as they should.

  18. TMR*

    Our local school system made similar statements about “privacy laws” as to why they wouldn’t disclose to us if a case appeared in my daughter’s classroom or even school building. (The county health department has stated they’ll do contact tracing, but realistically, how soon will they be overwhelmed?) Reinforced our decision to pick e-learning this semester.

  19. Hopital worker*

    Does HIPPA come into play if your employer is a hospital performing their own COVID tests on employees? (We have in house PCR). If so, how should they handle it?

    1. Free Meerkats*

      You’re a hospital. You have professionals on staff whose job it is to know HIPAA, They’d be the ones to ask.

  20. anon for this*

    We had an employee test positive in our location a while back. Managers cited HIPAA when telling us they couldn’t tell us who, as well as that anyone who had been exposed had been contacted.
    Of course, we were all pretty concerned (some more vocally than others) which eventually led to another email telling people not to speculate as to who it might be.

  21. Beboots*

    I don’t work in the States but in Canada, but the discussion we’ve been having on this subject in my workplace (which is unionized) is that under our federal labour codes, all employees have a right to be informed of a hazard in the workplace. This has been broadly interpreted during the pandemic to mean that employees at a work site have the right to be informed if there was a positive COVID-19 test (obviously not attached to an individual name). So just like if there was a gas leak or violent offender in the area or a fire or whatever, we all have the right to be informed of the hazard so we can take appropriate action.

  22. MerBearStare*

    My mom, who is 71, recently had a COVID scare at her work place (fortunately she’s fine). She’s been mostly working from home, but she still had to go into the office once a week. About a month ago I got a call from her and she told me her coworker, who was in the office the same day she was, emailed her and their manager and told them she tested positive for COVID-19. My mom called me and I started crying. She called my sister and my sister started crying. We were all really upset and worried, obviously. Then my mom gets clarification from her coworker later that day and the doctor did not tell her the test came back as positive; he told her it came back as abnormal. Abnormal and positive do not mean the same thing! The coworker “called around” (but like to who?) and that’s how she came to the conclusion that abnormal=positive. I was so angry at her coworker. And at no point did the coworker follow-up to say yes, she has it or no, she doesn’t. I was angry at her workplace for making her go in once a week even though she could do her job completely remotely. Employers, be better! Don’t make people come in if they don’t have to. Be transparent with your employees if they’ve possibly been exposed at work. And don’t tell people you’ve tested positive if that’s not exactly what the doctor told you!

    Thank you for letting me vent.

    1. Hopital worker*

      I would be more angry at the doctor. He should have been more clear. It sounds like the coworker actually thought that she tested positive so that was a good faith error.

  23. Certified Scorpion Trainer*

    the contact tracing at my job sounds pretty much exactly the same. the worst part is that WE WORK FOR A HEALTHCARE ORGANIZATION.
    we get our temperature checked when we walk into the building and are asked to report symptoms. we’ve had two coworkers (that i know of) who have lied about having symptoms, came in to work anyway (one on multiple consecutive days), and then later went home sick and tested positive for Covid.
    staff was not told except for a select few even though these people had been in close contact and working with. except in the second case, where the staff member was working in a teeny shared office with only one other person and she was NOT told. we had previously been told that if someone tests positive, our center would get shut down for cleaning and quarantine staff but that has definitely not been the case. we haven’t even received an email letting us know or telling us to be hyper-vigilant/please report our symptoms. we’re just kept in the dark and working as usual. if it weren’t for gossip, we would never have known.

  24. Gatomon*

    I’m honestly not sure where I fall on this, despite being out right now pending my own COVID test tomorrow. I’m almost positive I would’ve picked it up at work, partly because I really haven’t been anywhere else, and partly because I may have seen some info I shouldn’t necessarily have seen indicating someone in the office had been recently exposed to someone symptomatic. There’s a chance I was exposed via my mom, who is also sick and fell ill the same day, but her workplace is actually following precautions like temp checks and masks… whereas mine is not.

    Finding contacts shouldn’t be too hard as our office is small, and worst case scenario they can just check the logs to see who’s badges scanned in last week to know who was in the office.

    Obviously I don’t want to be known as the plague-giver should I test positive, but on the other hand it may push my company and coworkers to actually take things more seriously and follow the guidelines (or send people back to WFH full time).

  25. lilsheba*

    Luckily I’ve not had to worry about catching the virus at my old job, I’ve been home from that since March. And I started a new job working from home so I’m good there. My boyfriend’s work on the other hand….it’s a huge warehouse/factory. There is a day shift and swing shift, my bf is swing. Twice now someone, they didn’t name names, tested positive for covid and twice they shut down production and sent day shift people home early. They deep clean the whole place, then swing shift has a ton of work to catch up on that day shift couldn’t do. The second time it caused my bf to be at work for 14 hours. Both times they learned it came from a certain group of people on day shift who insist on having big family gatherings/dinners/parties. They admit they have them, they don’t care who it affects. So because of their selfishness a lot of people are inconvenienced in a huge way, and the company gets hit with a huge money loss. And they run the risk of bringing the virus home to me. Luckily they are diligent about washing and using alcohol and whatnot. But seriously these people who are doing this kind of thing, they need to stop it, because they affect so many other’s lives. I’m a huge fan of not interfering in people’s personal lives, and of privacy, but if they can’t behave then they need to have some intervention done or be let go for being a health hazard.

  26. The New Normal*

    I feel this pain! My partner’s firm covers two buildings. Most employees were sent to WFH. One weekend, an employee came to the office to make copies. On Monday, he notified HR that he had been exposed earlier in the week and was pending a result. HR sent home everyone who was in that office, even though they weren’t present for the employee’s visit. Two weeks later, my partner’s cubicle neighbor notified HR by text on a Sunday that her daughter (who lives with her) was very ill and being tested for COVID-19. They told her to come in and talk to them in morning. She was at her desk for several hours before they sent her home and refused to let my partner go on the two week exposure leave – in fact, they didn’t even disclose that she had left for it. If my partner had not spoken with her, we would never have known. It was exceptionally frustrating! Even now there are less than a dozen people in either office and their CEO is pushing against WFH very hard. He wants everyone back.

  27. LoneHR*

    As an HR Director, I can tell you that we are taking all action as directed by our local health department. If there is a positive case, we notify close contacts and ask them to quarantine for 14 days from exposure. Close contact is within 6 feet for 15 minutes or more. Those meeting that definition were in close contact within the 48 hours preceding when the person who tested positive started experiencing symptoms. Once we notify close contacts, then we notify everyone in that specific building that there was a positive case. We give the date we found out, the general location they worked in, the date of actual exposure (those 48 hours preceding symptoms), and that we have already notified close contacts. We do not and will not give out names. That breaks ADA and our own confidentiality policies; HIPAA does not apply to us. We do not notify anyone when there is a pending test. We aren’t required to, and if we did, there would be multiple announcements each day sure to cause panic. Out of my 300 or so employees, we have had less than 5 positive cases since March with none in the same building. But we have had probably 100 or so be tested, some more than once. This is why we don’t inform about pending tests. We are heavily monitored by local governments as we have contracts with the state. Trust me when I tell you, we’re doing everything we can and should be. Positive cases should truly be the only info that goes out as stated above.

    1. LoneHR*

      I should add – we’re doing several other mitigation strategies. We require masks, a health screen each day including a temperature check, and sanitation stations are set up everywhere.

    2. This is the OP*

      LoneHR, that’s what I am asking my workplace to do! At first they said doing what you are doing would violate HIPAA. Then they agreed to do some of it, but did not actually do it. I think your employees are very fortunate.

      1. LoneHR*

        Thank you for saying this! Each day I wonder if we’re doing enough. It’s not easy balancing the health and safety of others while not creating hysteria.

    3. UrbanChic*

      Thank you for sharing this. My partner works for the local sheriff (the sheriff is responsible for the jail), and they are following a similar procedure in terms of tracing, yet announcing all suspected cases (in addition to those that are confirmed). My partner receives a nightly email with new data, and the “suspected” case numbers are alarming and not useful, in my opinion. Employees are constantly being tested (there is an entire COVID testing site dedicated to my partner’s agency), and yet about 3% of staff have been infected (so far). You have no way of knowing if you’ve been potentially exposed unless you are contacted (and because my partner is essential, you keep working until you show symptoms).

      1. LoneHR*

        It’s tough. It really is. Initially we were sharing pending tests until they became so frequent when symptoms such as runny nose were added. We’re essential also. Best wishes to you and your partner!! I hope you both can stay safe and healthy.

  28. ???*

    Does the application of HIPPA change if the employer is the one administering the test? For instance, I work in a hospital, so if employees are symptomatic, they can get testing through the hospital (our employer). Just curious if in that case HIPPA would apply/if it changes anything.

    1. AnonoDoc*

      The testing shoudl be done through employee/occupational health and HIPPA does apply. Employee health records are generally sequestered from the regular patient records system at the hospital as well.

  29. all the time*

    Some people seriously are just nosy? We had 2 positive cases in one of our buildings – they did contact tracing and sent direct contacts home for 2 weeks from exposure. There have been no more cases and none of the contacts contracted Covid.

    The entire company was not notified – but word got around and we had complaints from employees in another state separated by an ocean – that they were not told.

    IMO that is ridiculous.

    1. JMB*

      I actually had probable exposure from a relative with symptoms) who turned out to be negative for covid).

      I told my company and they told me to not report to work until we both received test results. I manage the department with one other person, and she covered for me during this time

      I came back to find out that there had been rumors spread about me testing positive for corona. One employee in particular, he has been an issue for a while. I pulled him into my office and said to him, listen, I don’t care if it’s done to me, but I better not hear another covid rumor come out of your mouth ever again. You’re putting red X’s on people’s foreheads. If you didn’t hear it from management, if you didn’t hear it from HR, then it is a rumor.

      He shut up after that and I hope he stays that way

    2. This is the OP*

      I think it is not being nosy, I think it is fear that the company is not going to be forthcoming if someone closer to them tests positive.

      It would probably help if the company spelled out when people will and will not get notified and then actually do what they say. That would bring a comfort level with the company.

      If your company has told people the policy and is following it, then I still think covid raises so many fears and managing those is still the key.

  30. JMB*

    At my work, if someone tested positive, HR sent an email to alerting staff which department it was identified in.

    I found out that a department an employee who had tested positive for covid. Employees from that department were in and out of my office daily, asking me questions, no mask or anything. So when I saw the email that “A covid-19 positive employee from X department” went out, I was furious. In that email, it stated that anyone who worked in close proximity with that person has already been contacted. I brought my concern up with HR, I told them that I had LOTS of interaction with everyone in that office, but I was never contacted until this email went out. their response to me was

    “You did not have probable exposure because you were not working with them within 6 feet for 15 minutes or more.” Repeatedly coming in and out of my office, multiple times a day, doesn’t count?

    HR also told me that the whole department had to get tested and “most of them came back negative.” Oh, fantastic – MOST!

    Now I understand they can’t shut the whole business down, but this behavior is leading my employees to believe that the company is doing nothing to handle the issue. I feel that they could do more, but having to deal with my employees who express concern that nothing is being done is a whole other pain in the neck I have to deal with.

    1. This is the OP*

      You expressed the feelings of my coworkers perfectly. If you don’t think we were exposed, then it seems like you don’t recognize reality. I get that your employer followed the letter of the CDC policy but it sure seems like they did not follow the spirit of it. And we know we dont really know right now if the policy is adequate.

      I am glad that you at least get an email that an employee from x department tested positive. That is helpful even though it sounds like you get it rather late.

      I am sorry you were exposed like that.

  31. Anabel*

    This is why we need robust exposure notification applications. Your phone can track who’s phone was close to you for more than a few passing minutes and then notify you if someone you were near tests positive. Yes it isn’t perfect if you don’t take your phone to the bathroom, but this technology exists and is already being used in some countries. And it is entirely privacy law compliant and doesn’t require the company to do anything.

  32. Anon For Now*

    My organization is still working from home. However, our HR department wants to be notified if someone tests positive for COVID. I know one of my reports tested positive, but I was informed directly by that report. I didn’t share with anyone else, as it’s no one else’s business, but we also don’t have to worry about contact tracing as no one is working in the office. As we get positive cases though it has reinforced the decision that we’ve made about keeping our office closed.

  33. JM60*

    What good does it do you to know which of your coworkers is infected ?

    It can greatly you know whether or not you were exposed, and how much you were exposed.

    If every workplace would automatically have everyone quarantine at home for two weeks and test negative before returning if a single employee had the virus, then naming names wouldn’t be as useful. However, most American employers aren’t doing that.

    1. JM60*

      This was meant to be nested under another comment. I since posted there. Feel free to delete this one.

  34. I Need That Pen*

    Is it really going to take a process server with an envelope (or envelopes plural) for some of these companies out there to take this pandemic seriously? My company, bless them, has told me, “Ah you’re doing great from home, you can work from home so we’re going to keep it that way.” Sure I’m going stir crazy but they are taking it seriously. I wish all companies were.

    1. lilsheba*

      Yes like companies that insist on having people go back to the office? WHY? if people are working from home just fine, just keep doing it. I’m lucky I get to start my new job at home and just stay at home from now on. It works just great.

  35. Annasmith*

    I don’t really think this question has much to do with HIPAA laws, to be honest. It’s more like, what is the moral obligation here if there isn’t a legal one? Should there be a legal one? What if they didn’t tell the people that were sitting around them to or came in close contact with and someone caught it and dies? What if they continue to choose to do “their own contact tracing” and not tell employees if they came into close contact with an exposed person (because maybe the employer doesn’t consider it “close contact”) and they bring it home to their own communities?

    1. Natalie*

      There is a legal obligation, though:

      But a different law is in play: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The agency charged with enforcing the ADA has said that while employers should indeed alert employees that a coworker has tested positive for COVID, under the ADA they cannot name the person.

      (bolding mine)

  36. Free Meerkats*

    I’m glad the Alison included the self-insured proviso. We are self-insured and now that I’m in a pseudo management role, I have to be much more careful what I talk about regarding medical stuff.

  37. FriendlyCanadian*

    In such a small office I would encourage HR to just send a company wide (or building wide depending on how much interaction the two buildings do) email asking everyone to get tested if someone tests positive

    1. This is the OP*

      That is what we asked for, but they were not willing to send an email. Managers had to call everyone. Which did not happen fully the first time and not at all the second.

  38. nanushka*

    I’d love to know how all this plays out legally in a school setting, where there are not only employees but also students. (And does it make a difference if the school is public or private?)

  39. Tired and retiring*

    “But a different law is in play: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The agency charged with enforcing the ADA has said that while employers should indeed alert employees that a coworker has tested positive for COVID, under the ADA they cannot name the person.“

    I wrote a few months ago after the person that shares my space in our office became ill, and her boyfriend subsequently died. All of a sudden, I became an essential employee and was told I had to report to work. (I have never been considered an essential employee in more than a quarter of a century…)
    I pushed back via email, and the second in command told me he didn’t like my “tone”.
    I love having the above information now and I intend to follow up on it. The guy is a prick and I have no qualms about making known what he had said to me.
    When he had emailed me back that comment, he copied others. He used the employee’s first name, and I never had. That bothered me tremendously. He is so unprofessional, so uncouth, and truly infuriating.

    Thank you, Alison.

  40. RB*

    You have to wonder what else they’re not doing well, such as things that might not be apparent to the staff. For example, if management isn’t taking this very seriously then they’re probably not wearing masks and doing the social distancing when they’re away from work. And they may not be requiring staff to observe those measures on their personal time. They may be doing other things that aren’t recommended, like having social gatherings indoors instead of outdoors, etc, etc.

  41. agnes*

    The CDC is the guiding agency. You may not like their recommendations, but they are made based on the most current data available. We’ve had limited success in dealing with this virus because lay people assumed they knew more than the CDC and did not follow their recommendations in the first place. I understand people’s concerns about getting sick., but I’d rather have my employer following CDC guidelines than making up their own. At our workplace we follow CDC guidelines and in a group of 1000+, about 1/3 of whom have consistent direct contact with the public , we have had zero employee to employee transmission.

  42. Molly*

    I am a nurse in charge of contact tracing for my employer. We ABSOLUTELY tell people who the person was, because otherwise it would be impossible for us to assess whether the person had contact with the positive person that would require us to ask the contact to quarantine or isolate. Even if HIPAA did apply, the disclosure rules are “minimum required” and do not prevent health info disclosure entirely, but minimize it to what is necessary.

  43. DJ*

    After having a former manager blab false information about the perceived impacts of my cancer treatment and the organisation refused to address the negative impact on reputation I can vouch privacy does not apply to employees. And disability discrimination laws are extremely weak. As much as I feel employees should be advised of potentional or actual exposures there needs to be a huge tightening of laws protecting those with Covid from discrimination ie being infectious or perceived impacts (as often reported by media and thus assumptions made).

Comments are closed.