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Source: Privacy Commissioner

When can you disclose information about someone who may be infected with the novel coronavirus (Covid-19)? These frequently asked questions can help you navigate privacy considerations where there may be a risk of exposure to the Covid-19 virus.

Does an event organiser have to give attendee information to the health authorities if asked when there’s a notifiable disease case?

Yes. The Health Act says a medical officer of health may direct individuals and agencies to disclose information about individuals who pose a public health risk. The medical officers of health are statutory officers who have a key role in managing outbreaks of infectious diseases. One of their powers under the Health Act is to be able to compel the disclosure of personal information to in order to carry out this role. Identifying individuals who have attended the same event as an infected individual is an important step in trying to contain an outbreak. You can read the relevant section in the Health Act here. 

Do I tell the other people who attended an event where there’s been a suspected or confirmed Covid-19 case?

The right thing to do is to give attendee contact information to the health authorities. The health authorities will decide whether the seriousness warrants informing other attendees to the event that they may have been in contact with an infected person and whether they should take steps to quarantine themselves or seek medical assistance.

Can I tell someone about a person whom I believe has the Covid-19 virus?

If you haven’t had a request from a medical officer of health, there may be an exception under the Privacy Act to enable you to tell a medical officer. Personal information can be used or disclosed where believe that the use or disclosure is necessary in order to prevent or lessen a serious threat to public health or safety.

If an employee returns from overseas and self-isolates themselves with possible Covid-19 symptoms, can I tell my other employees?

In this case, the employee has already self-isolated, and the employer does not definitely know if the staff member has the Covid-19 virus. Principle 8 says an agency should check that personal information is accurate and complete before they use it. In this scenario, the employee is unsure if they have the virus but is taking a precautionary step. They have chosen to go into isolation, so they do not potentially expose their colleagues. There is no health and safety imperative for the employer to disclose this information to other staff members. The employer should discuss with the quarantining staff member how they want to deal with any announcement to colleagues.

An employee comes to work displaying possible Covid-19 symptoms and is sent home. Can staff be told the employee might have the virus?

If you are concerned about a risk of transmission to your other employees, you could tell them about the possible exposure. This is so they can take steps to protect themselves and to monitor for symptoms. But this doesn’t necessarily mean it is necessary to identify the employee in question. Ideally, it would be preferable not to identify the individual who may be the source of the exposure. But there will be times when that will be unavoidable in the context, such as in a small organisation or office where only one person is absent on sick leave.

One of the exceptions in the Privacy Act which permits the use or disclosure of personal information is where you believe that the use or disclosure is necessary in order to prevent or lessen the risk of a serious threat to someone’s safety, wellbeing or health.

Can I tell my employees that a colleague might have a notifiable disease?

Under the Privacy Act, there is a general obligation not to use or disclose personal information, unless an exception applies. 

One of the exceptions that permits the use or disclosure of personal information is where you believe that the use or disclosure is necessary in order to prevent or lessen the risk of a serious threat to someone’s safety, wellbeing or health. 

Under this exception, when dealing with an employee who may have contracted a highly contagious disease, it may be prudent to advise other employees so they can monitor themselves for possible symptoms, isolate themselves from the workplace and take steps to protect themselves. It may not be necessary to identify the source of the exposure but there will be times when that will be unavoidable in the context, such as in a small organisation or office where only one person is absent on sick leave.

Remember that the starting point from a privacy perspective is that an employee has a right to expect that their health information is kept confidential from other employees. An employer needs to apply discretion in deciding whether or not to disclose the nature of the illness, injury or condition.

Our office advises taking a common-sense approach to how much information needs to be disclosed. In most circumstances, a workplace is unlikely to need to know the exact reason why a person is unable to attend work, unless the serious threat exception applies.

Image credit: Coronavirus cell via the Pacific Community

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