If you’re an employer, you need to be aware of how you can keep your employees safe in the time of COVID. One of your concerns should pertain to HIPAA, a law that ensures that certain health information is kept confidential. As a leader, it’s critical that you know what you should and are able to share, as well as what needs to remain private.
You’ll gain the respect of your employees if you can handle health information with care. Read on to learn 7 things you need to know about HIPAA and COVID to keep everyone safe!
1. Know What HIPAA Covers
When it comes to HIPAA and COVID, you need to know the facts about what the Health Insurance and Portability Act (HIPAA) covers. What does HIPAA cover? HIPAA provides protection for employees regarding the disclosure of their health information, and it also provides access to personal health information for these same employees.
Any discussions of health information must conceal the identifying information of patients, such as their names or social security numbers. If your public health officials call you and ask for the latest numbers, be sure to avoid revealing any identifying information about your employees as you discuss cases in your workplace. Ultimately, HIPAA regulations cover a broad stroke of rules, so spend some time understanding what those rules are — and what you need to do.
2. Public Health Officials Need to Know About Exposures
While you don’t want to disclose too much information to random people, it is important for public health officials to be aware of exposures in your workplace. This is critical for conducting effective contact tracing and determining infection rates within your region — and it is permitted by HIPAA.
Public health officials have a responsibility to serve local and national communities in the fight against diseases. Public health officials include local, regional, or federal government employees, as well as employees from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Organizations like the CDC work to thwart threats to public health, so any information that helps in this process is vital for the good of public health.
3. Establish Clear Protocol for Employees
Another important step in maintaining a safe work environment is establishing a protocol for employees. There will be times when you have employees who suspect they have COVID, while others actually have it. Additionally, you’ll likely have employees who have been in contact with someone who has COVID.
For all of these situations, you need to establish clear steps. Be sure to communicate your company’s protocol verbally and in writing so that employees are all on the same page. Also, be sure to let employees know how they can access COVID tests.
For employees who have fevers or other flu-like symptoms, make sure that they understand they can stay home without penalty or judgment. Set up a contact tracing system so a designated employee can reach out to individuals who were near the employee. And establish quarantine timelines so employees know when they may safely return to work after an infection.
4. Follow ADA Guidelines
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that employers do not disclose personal health information about employees. And the ADA mandates that employers do not let health concerns affect employment decisions. Although COVID is not a disability, it is a sensitive health issue — so it’s wise to follow ADA guidelines.
Avoid rushing out and sharing any health information without first consulting your employees. It’s always better to show your employees that you care by touching base with them first and being transparent.
5. Don’t Ask Too Much When It Comes to HIPAA and COVID
As a general rule, it’s wise to err on the side of not asking too much about the health issues of your employees. Asking too much may jeopardize your relationship with the employee. It may seem like you are pressuring an employee to reveal conditions that could affect your impression of them.
Avoid asking about underlying conditions, too. Any health issues that could place an employee at a higher risk for complications from COVID should not be common knowledge. And you don’t want to seem aggressive in your questioning, particularly if you also evaluate employee performance and need to maintain a neutral perspective.
6. Know What You Can Ask
Thanks to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), you can ask certain questions of your employees without violating the ADA. The EEOC protects employees from discrimination. But it’s fair to ask if your employees have a fever or symptoms that make them think they may have the flu, which has similar symptoms to COVID.
You can also ask about recent travel experiences. If your employees have visited COVID hotspots or been out of the country, you may need to ask them to comply with company protocol regarding COVID quarantining.
7. Avoid Disclosing Anything to the Media
In the midst of a pandemic, the media wants to report about COVID using data that accurately reflects the current situation. While it may be tempting to contribute your knowledge and the reporters might be pressuring you to do so, don’t disclose anything confidential.
Resist the urge to say too much. And take the opportunity to tell your team members who also have access to private health information that they need to remain quiet, too.
Handling HIPAA and COVID requires maintaining a delicate balance between disclosing important information and keeping your employees safe. You can’t overstep legal boundaries, but you do have an obligation to support public health needs. If you know the rules and work with your employees, you can keep your workspace safe.
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