Guidelines for sharing information on COVID-19 cases

It can be confusing to understand what information can and can’t be shared when it comes to cases of COVID-

19. Privacy laws govern specific, identifying information, and public safety needs drive the release of general information.

North Central Public Health District covers Wasco, Sherman and Gilliam counties, and local public health officials work in partnership with businesses and schools in all three counties on cases of COVID-19.

If a person tests positive for COVID, the health district works with the person and their employer, if needed, to identify who their close contacts are. A close contact is anyone who was within six feet of the person for 15 minutes during their infectious period. The infectious period is 48 hours prior to onset of symptoms, or a positive COVID-19 test if the person has no symptoms, to 10 days after onset of symptoms or positive test.

From there, the health district reaches out to those close contacts and instructs them to quarantine themselves for 14 days to monitor for possible symptoms. As much as possible, the health department limits releasing privacy information and only tells close contacts of their exposure to a positive case, without naming the person with COVID.

Medical privacy laws, known as HIPPA, prevent the release of identifying information about people regarding any medical condition, including COVID-19. Other privacy laws, called FERPA, protect release of information about students.

“Due to regulations and respect for an individual’s privacy, we limit the release of personal information as much as possible. Therefore we notify only those people who need to take direct actions,” said Dr. Mimi McDonell, health officer for the health district.

“We notify close contacts because they need to obtain COVID-19 testing and quarantine for 14 days,” McDonell said. “We don’t notify everyone in their building, for example, because if they are not close contacts, they don’t need to take additional steps.”

“Due to asymptomatic spread, I encourage people to act as if everyone they come in contact with has COVID- 19,” McDonell said.

Individual businesses have their own policies on notifying their employees if someone on their staff tests positive.

The state has required all schools to develop protocols for communicating immediately with staff, families, and the community when a new case(s) of COVID-19 is diagnosed in students or staff members, including a description of how the school or district is responding.

“We feel confident in our business and school partners in Wasco, Sherman and Gilliam counties,” McDonell said. “The businesses and schools we have worked with have done an exceptional job of preparation for responding to COVID cases. Those agencies which have had an employee or student test positive have responded appropriately and worked with NCPHD to ensure all close contacts are informed and safely quarantined.”

“Whenever there is a case or an outbreak, we work very closely with them and we do our utmost to ensure everyone is working within the guidelines,” McDonell said.

For more information on HIPPA, visit here.

For more information on student privacy laws, visit here. OHA COVID-19 guidelines, visit here here.

For school response protocols, listed in the Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance, visit here.