As businesses reopen after the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, contact tracing to track viral exposure in the workplace will become a critical part of helping to slow the spread of the virus and protect workers. So what do employers need to know before implementing contact tracing?
Contact tracing helps protect health and safety, but workers could be hesitant to share personal information. “There’s a lot of concern over whether information disclosed in contact tracing could be used in other ways,” says Andrew Schroeder, Vice President of Research and Analysis at Direct Relief and co-founder of the COVID-19 Mobility Data Network. To be effective, there must be mutual trust between employers and the workforce.
Here’s how to implement contact tracing to protect health and safety in your workplace.
Testing is the starting point for contact tracing. Employer policies around testing should be limited to tests for the live virus, though, as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has made it clear that the antibody test violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Temperature checks, however, are permissible under the ADA.
The basic steps of contact tracing are to identify a positive (or suspected positive) case through testing, create a list of people who may have been exposed and then perform further testing to identify if those individuals have contracted the virus. Employers need to maintain network diagrams linking those people together.
Employers also need to isolate individuals who are COVID-19 positive. Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), those employees are entitled to two weeks of paid leave.
Although technology options can support employer contact tracing, it isn’t the only way to trace exposure. “It’s not a high skill practice,” Schroeder says. “You don’t need high-tech solutions, just diligence in interviewing people.” Develop a manual process and appoint an organized group to carry it out.
But don’t try to trace your workforce’s social lives, Schroeder says. Your contact tracing should be limited to the workplace. Control for social and home variables with frequent testing for active viral infections.
Privacy is a key concern for workers. Under normal circumstances, inquiring about medical or health history would not be permitted. But during COVID-19, the ADA has relaxed its requirements, points out Leah Norod, Associate Attorney at Romano Law, LLC. “Employers can ask questions regarding an employee’s health information that otherwise might not be permissible under the ADA, such as whether someone who has called in sick has coronavirus symptoms.”
However, that doesn’t change your obligation as an employer to treat that information as confidential. If there is a confirmed positive case of COVID-19 in the workplace, medical privacy laws do not allow employers to share the identity of the individual. “Employers still need to comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the ADA and any applicable state laws that govern an employee’s medical information and confidentiality,” Norod says. “Employers may inform other employees of a potential exposure in a way that does not reveal the confidential information or the identity of the infected employee without their prior permission.”
You can inform employees in a certain department or office space, for example, that they may have been exposed to the virus. Designated contact tracers will know who has been exposed and be able to follow up with interviews and testing without revealing specific identifiable information.
Your workers should feel safe and comfortable telling you if they aren’t feeling well and need to stay home. They need to trust that you will treat their personal medical information with care and that they won’t be penalized for staying home or taking advantage of leave under the FFCRA.
The whole tracing system falls apart if you can’t trust your employees to be honest with you, Schroeder says. But you need to earn that trust with transparency about their rights and your processes and with your reactions if an employee does test positive. Outline your contact tracing protocols, including specific steps and expectations in the event of a positive test.
Contact tracing is crucial to protecting both workforce wellness and the economy. For businesses to stay open, contact tracing measures, along with social distancing, must be adopted — and must be taken seriously. Employers have a key role to play in protecting the safety of their workers — and their communities.
Need help implementing your contact tracing program? Contact Cisive to learn more about our CONTACT19 contact tracing solution, which can be tailored to your organization’s unique policies and workplace safety protocol.
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