Concerns related to the Ebola outbreak are increasing among both employers and employees in the United States. The outbreak is currently most active in the West African nations of Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. However, there has been at least one confirmed death from the disease in the United States, and it has recently been reported that an American nurse in Texas who assisted in treating the patient who passed away also recently tested positive for Ebola. 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. To the extent that such protocols, including information on Ebola prevention, detection, and treatment, could limit employees’ exposure to the disease, proactive employers in other industries should follow suit.
So far, various health care organizations and government agencies have suggested the following protective steps to health care employers:
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response have issued Ebola screening criteria and general guidance on Ebola for the health care community to ensure that all health care workers (including hospital workers, physician groups, and emergency medical technicians) 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 started a website devoted to information about Ebola on which it continually posts updated information.
- CDC officials are available to assist around the clock through the CDC Emergency Operations Center at 770-488-7100 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- On October 1, the American Hospital Association (AHA) updated its Advisory page with a hospital checklist for Ebola preparedness.
- The AHA also has an Ebola preparedness webpage with resources (such as screening criteria and a preparedness checklist) that hospitals, health systems, and emergency response personnel can use to prepare for Ebola. The AHA will continue to update the page as resources and information become available.
- Specialty health care associations, like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), have issued their own information pages, such as the AAP’s Children and Disasters page, on patient-specific resources on the Ebola outbreak.
While these notices and bulletins have been directed specifically to health care entities, non-health care employers may want to take the following steps to safeguard their workplaces and employees.
- Review information on Ebola as it is issued, to assure company compliance with any aspects of the directives that may affect their own workforces.
- Consult travel information and advisories that are being issued from airports and the Federal Aviation Administration (which issued a statement on Ebola on October 3) when asking employees to travel near, to, or through affected areas.
- Educate the employees who engage in travel by providing them with the screening criteria to allow them to be vigilant of symptoms and health-related issues.
- Post general information in a common area 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.
Jean Kim provides further details on the Ebola virus and outbreak, in addition to tips on pre-pandemic planning and addressing Ebola concerns at work, in her October 3 blog post, “Ebola: Emerging Concerns for Healthcare Facilities and Employers.”