Though public health officials have used contract tracing for years to combat infectious diseases, you may never have heard of it before the COVID-19 pandemic. Contact tracing helps health professionals understand who’s infected and – in wider and wider ripples – who has been exposed and therefore also might be infected.
By knowing where infections may be coming next, officials can help people take appropriate steps to help prevent further spread. The faster those actions take place, the more the disease’s impact is reduced.
Employers’ role in contact tracing
Employers, whose workplaces may be vulnerable to COVID-19 infections simply because employees are working together in the same location, have a responsibility to participate in contact tracing. This workplace exercise typically precedes the broader-scale contact-tracing process public health officials conduct. Contact tracing at the employer level is driven by close contacts not just contact.
The CDC defines close contact as being “within 6 feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period.” Learn more about how close contact is defined in this blog post.
Specifically, employers should:
- Create a COVID-19 response policy that includes a description of the company’s contact-tracing procedures. Share the policy with all employees. Make sure they know that, if they test positive for the disease, they will be asked to provide a list of people (“contacts”) with whom they've had close contact with at work during the infectious period, which is 48 hours before symptoms appeared.
- Appoint a COVID-19 coordinator or team to oversee activities related to the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Contact Tracing guidance is a helpful resource as you plan for the possibility of an employee contracting COVID-19.
- To help ensure the list of people who were possibly exposed to COVID-19 is as complete as possible, prepare the questions you will use in interviews with infected employees to determine their movements. The CDC provides sample dialogues and other tips, including information you can share with contacts about quarantining.
- Establish processes that make it possible to quickly and accurately identify contacts, such as maintaining updated:
- Meeting logs
- Attendance records
- Lists of workers, vendors, subcontractors and others who visit your workplace
- Office floor plan and seating charts
- Employee contact information
- Be prepared to share these records with state or local health departments, which may request an employer’s assistance in their contact-tracing efforts.
- If you learn an employee has tested positive for COVID-19, act quickly to identify and notify co-workers who might have been exposed to the virus.
- Employers may ask employees if they have symptoms of or have been diagnosed with COVID-19 without violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
- You cannot, however, disclose confidential details about infected employees, including their names and other personal identifying information, with anyone at work except staffers conducting a contact-tracing investigation – unless they grant their permission to do so.
Kansas employers also should be familiar with the COVID-19 response bill signed into law June 9 by Governor Laura Kelly. It prevents COVID-19 patients and close contacts from being “compelled to participate in” contact tracing. Contact tracers and case investigators could face class C misdemeanor charges if they violate the law by not first informing contacts that their cooperation with health officials is voluntary.
Since the best offense is always a good defense, remember that COVID-19 preventative measures can help eliminate or reduce the number of contact-tracing exercises a company must complete. To limit opportunities for the virus to spread, implement measures such as:
- Staggering schedules
- Encouraging remote-work arrangements
- Holding virtual meetings
- Creating workflows that limit interaction
- Blocking access to common areas in the office
The more you limit the times and places people can come into close contact with each other, the easier it will be should contact tracing become necessary.