Isolation ward (stock image)

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

Is it the public’s right to know who tests positive for the coronavirus?

That’s the question on a lot of people’s minds as fears of the virus spread like wildfire. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t an easy one. 

“No one needs to know who has it and nobody needs to start a witch hunt,” said Jake Sharp in a comment on The Central Virginian’s Facebook page on March 28 about Louisa’s eighth coronavirus case. 

“Follow medical advice. Stay home. Assume it’s everywhere,” he said. 

Another follower of The CV’s Facebook page, Jennifer Cushman, agreed with Sharp. “Thank you. Finally, someone who gets it,” she said. “If everyone stopped going out every day like they were on holiday and took appropriate measures they would have nothing to worry about.” 

But a lot of people in the community are worried. 

Unlike other natural disasters such as fires or tornados, it’s not as easy as driving down the street to see the destruction to homes and lives shattered. But in a pandemic, the impact can be just as devastating.

There are strict laws in place to protect the identity and health information of patients. The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), passed in 1996, shields individuals from having private health information released without their consent.

Without this protection, many people could encounter unlawful discrimination because of their medical conditions. Normally, not sharing this information isn’t a big deal. But what happens when the situation presents a risk to the public? 

Local health officials expect people who test positive for coronavirus to be willing to speak with them to determine whether self-quarantine is warranted, and whether these individuals pose a threat to others. 

“Each positive case begins a new investigation, said Marcia Hornberger, district epidemiologist for the Thomas Jefferson Health District. 

“If during the investigation, the health department determines there is a risk to the public, we will take necessary actions to inform those who have been exposed,” she said.

Hornberger recognizes that people with high risk for severe illness would “especially benefit” from knowing they have made contact with a person who has tested positive. 

But it’s up to the individual to share this information with family and friends. People who test positive for coronavirus are not required to tell anyone, including their employers in most circumstances. 

In certain industries, such as food service, workers are required to tell their bosses if they test positive for coronavirus. But what the business shares with the public is, well, their business. 

Many company policies require employees to share this information with their employer, despite the legal requirement for a patient’s confidentiality — especially if it poses a risk to the public. 

“I think they should let at least workers of places [know],” said Ashley Cox, another follower of The Central Virginian’s Facebook page. “No names, just a heads-up that, ‘Hey, someone who was in your store last week has tested positive.’” 

Hornberger recommends employees review their company’s policies so they know what to do should they get sick. If an employee isn’t feeling well, he or she is encouraged to evaluate their symptoms and take off work if they think it’s possible they may infect other people. 

To reduce the spread of coronavirus, the Virginia Department of Health recommends businesses adhere to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines by: 

  • Actively encouraging employees to stay home if they are sick
  • Identifying where and how workers might be exposed to the illness at work
  • Separating sick employees
  • Educating employees about how they can reduce the spread

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