Employers learn to navigate health privacy laws

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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) As people around the region return to in-person work, some may test positive for the coronavirus. While management and HR will likely know, what can be done to warn other employees without violating the employee's privacy?

"Normally, an employer shouldn't be sharing protected health information with other employees," said Tracy Dolan, the deputy commissioner for the Vermont Department of Health.

She maintains that by law, employers cannot disclose employee's health information to other people in the workplace unless legal counsel says otherwise. However, they can say an employee has COVID-19, so long as they don't provide enough information for others to figure out who that person is.

"Many employees -- particularly because we know now what this is all about and we know contact tracing and the importance of it -- many employees might agree to it and tell their employer go ahead and tell the others so that they know and they can do the right thing," Dolan said.

But is relying on that employee to "do the right thing" enough? Maybe not. That's why the health officials are relying on contact tracing.

"Contact tracing works well, we've been able to contain a lot of cases with it. Because of contact tracing, we've had cases where we have one person who becomes sick, and we're able to quickly shut it down all around them because all of their contacts also quarantined," Dolan said.

In most cases, people in close contact will be notified of exposure within 12-hours to a day, but Kerin Stackpole, a Burlington employment and labor attorney, says he has an alternative that may alert people sooner, works within the law, and would limit disclosure.

"I'm going to say to Nancy, 'So Nancy, when you were in on your shift, who did you have contact with?' The employer is going to make a list. Now the employer is not going to go to those people and say, 'Ugh, Nancy has COVID,' because that would not be allowed by law. But what the employer can do -- contact employees who we know they had contact with and say, 'Hey, there's the potential that you have been exposed,'" Stackpole said.

In the meantime, the health officials say to get tested if you have symptoms or concerns, practice social-distancing, wear face coverings, and wash your hands.