Concerns related to the Ebola outbreak are increasing on the part of both employers and employees in the U.S.. While the outbreak is most active in the West African nations of Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, there has been at least one confirmed case in the United States. The key to preventing the spread of Ebola – as with many communicable diseases – is identifying and isolating potential cases as quickly as possible.
Health care employers have begun to implement preparedness protocols; proactive employers in other areas should follow suit, to the extent that such protocols could assist in limiting the exposure of employees to the disease by adding information and other tool to assist in understanding Ebola prevention, detection, and treatment.
So far, the following steps have been suggested to healthcare employers:
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response have issued Ebola screening criteria and general guidance for the health care community, to ensure that all health care workers (including hospital workers, physician groups and EMTs) are able to detect and respond to the virus, as well as protect themselves and others from it.
- The CDC has posted maps to show the most heavily affected areas in the West African countries in which the virus has been detected; this information should be factored into screening procedures being conducted by hospital emergency rooms, outpatient clinics, and other first responders.
- The CDC has opened an Ebola website on which it continually posts updated information.
- CDC officials are available to assist 24/7 by calling the CDC Emergency Operations Center at 770-488-7100; they can be reached by email at email@example.com.
- On October 1, the American Hospital Association (AHA) updated its own Ebola preparedness webpage with resources that hospitals and health systems, as well as emergency response personnel, can use to prepare for Ebola and will continue to update as resources and information become available, including screening criteria and a preparedness checklist.
- Specialty health care associations, like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), have issued their own information on the Ebola outbreak.
While these notices and bulletins have been directed specifically to health care entities, non-health care employers should be reviewing the information as it is issued, to assure company compliance with any aspects of the directives that may affect their own workforces. Travel information and advisories should be consulted when planning to ask employees to travel near, to, or through affected areas; screening criteria should be provided to employees who engage in travel to allow them to be vigilant for of symptoms and health-related issues; and general information can be posted to educate employees on the ongoing developments in and containments of the disease.
Employers also must be aware of the implications of both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) when considering whether or not to share health-related information with and about employees. Relaying the general advisories and informative bulletins published by the above-mentioned agencies is not likely to trigger any statutory violation, but sharing information related to a specific employee’s health or medical condition may lead to unintended liability. Any bulletins, advisories, or notices to general employee populations should be discussed and cleared with human resources personnel and legal counsel before posting or distributing to employee groups.