Though public health officials said it would be better if an employer does so, businesses are under no obligation to alert their employees if they know they’ve been exposed to another worker who tested positive for COVID-19.
A briefing from Pitkin County’s COVID-19 “response and recovery” unit issued last week aimed to provide guidance to employers and employees in the midst of the community’s economic reopening following three months of shutdown aimed at stopping the spread of the virus. With case numbers increasing as social distancing decreases and the town fills up, the guidance document advises that if an employee reports to work sick or gets sick at work, the employer’s first duty is to isolate that person while protecting his or her privacy, and then help them figure out how to get home and get tested without impacting others.
If an employee discloses that they have tested positive for COVID-19, “do not notify other employees about the individual’s positive test result … or attempt to contact trace yourself,” the guidance document says, advising that the employee’s status is a private medical matter.
Instead, the guidance document says that the “Public Health Disease Investigation Team” will initiate contact tracing.
If the person’s workplace is believed to have been a location where exposure might have occurred, contact tracers will reach out directly to employers, as well as employees that are believed to have been exposed, the document says. A contact or an exposure is defined by the Centers for Disease Control as a person who “has been closer than six feet to a positive person for more than 15 minutes, while that positive person is considered contagious. People who are identified as ‘contacts’ are required to quarantine for 14 days.”
The document also notes that “unless the employee self-reports to you as the employer, you as the employer may or may not be aware if your employee has tested positive,” the document says.
However, if an employer is aware of a positive case and likely exposure in the workplace, nothing prevents them from sharing that information with exposed workers or the public as long as the individuals who have tested positive are not personally identified.
Multiple local restaurants have undergone temporary closures in order to clean after an employee tests positive for COVID in recent weeks.
Tracy Trulove, public information officer with the county’s COVID response team, said it can be “subjective” whether or not to share information about COVID cases in the workplace, but from her experience, “the more honest and open companies are during crisis, the more appreciative the public is.”
“It says a tremendous amount about the integrity of that business/employer and we would consider that best practice,” Trulove said, when asked if employers should inform workers or the public about potential exposure, even though that’s not required.
The county’s contact tracers are required to start a case investigation within 24 hours of being notified of a positive test, but they aim to start such investigations within six hours, Trulove said.
“Contact tracing is harder because it depends on when we get in touch with the initial case and if/when they disclose the potential contact/exposure, but we strive for reaching contacts within six hours from when we learn about the potential contact,” she said.
If the workplace is deemed to be a significant place of exposure based on contact tracing investigations, the public health department may ask for a closure.
“If a recommendation to close is being considered, Pitkin County Public Health will reach out to that business to discuss the concerns and process in detail,” says the guidance document.
Besides determining who else on staff may have been exposed and informing them, the guidance document recommends that employers “consider that employee(s) could potentially be isolating in the near future and determine impacts to staffing and your operations.”
If customers of a business were determined to have been exposed, county contact tracers will reach out to them too.
Certain types of business where an outbreak occurs — defined as two or more cases in 14 days — are required by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to publicly report the outbreak. Those include health care settings, including long-term care, rehab and senior living facilities; correctional settings, including prisons and jails; factories or workplaces with crowded work conditions; and camps, schools and child care centers.
Restaurants and hotels are not among the types of businesses required to publicly report an outbreak by the CDPHE.
Jeff Hanle, vice president of communications for Aspen Skiing Co., which has reopened for summer mountain operations and also runs multiple hotels and restaurants that have reopened, said the company is doing everything it can to prevent the spread in the workplace, including adapting so that there is more social distancing and requiring masks. He noted that there are strict protocols in place at work that employees may not adhere to when they are off the clock.
If the company becomes aware of a positive case in its workforce, and potential exposure to other employees, “our intent is to have human resources notify other employees if there was potential … to have had close contact” with the positive case while protecting that person’s privacy, Hanle said.
He added that SkiCo is taking the lead from the county and is in favor of letting contact tracers lead investigations.
“Those employees who were exposed should be on the county’s contact tracing list,” he said, adding, “we are going to take our lead from the health professionals and do everything we can to prevent the spread while at the workplace.
Hanle said he has not “personally been informed” of any positive cases among SkiCo employees or heard about any on staff calls. Business has been “busier than I think we expected,” he added.
“It seems to be that across the country … there is such a pent-up demand to get outside and recreate,” he said. As an employer, Hanle said SkiCo sees it as “our obligation to do everything we can to keep guests and employees safe.”
With people coming from different regions that may have less-stringent safety protocols in place, education on local requirements is critical “so we can all stay open.”
According to county officials, the more open communication about what’s going on with COVID-19 locally, the better.
“We don’t want COVID to be a stigmatized issue so the more people can talk about it openly, the more we can de-stigmatize it and help ensure everyone gets the care, support and resources needed for our community to stay safer and healthier,” Suzuho Shimasaki, deputy director of Pitkin County Public Health, wrote in an email.