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Whose Job Is It To Warn Workers When Their Peers Get COVID-19?

Emily Bollinger
When an Illinois State University student tests positive for COVID-19, the university leaves it up to the McLean County Health Department to notify close contacts. Some employees say that policy is putting them at risk.

Time after time, WGLT News gets tips when an organization has had an outbreak of COVID-19 and didn't tell its employees. Workers think that's wrong, but employers say it's not that simple.

There are different opinions about who's responsible to alert workers to risk and what information a company, school or other organization can share.

Illinois State University relies on the McLean County Health Department (MCHD) for contact tracing when there's a positive COVID-19 case on campus. The university doesn't try to find close contacts or warn workers, largely because of confidentiality concerns.

That makes some feel unsafe in the workplace. An ISU facilities employee tells WGLT they only learned a student worker in their department tested positive for COVID because somebody slipped up and let it out.

The worker was on a job with that student days prior. The facilities employee said they were physically distanced, but neither wore masks. The student also had shared a work truck with another colleague. Neither heard from contact tracers.

Renee Nestler, staff representative for AFSCME Local 1110, said that worker's experience is not unique.

"It's not the first time we've had issues in wanting the university to let impacted employees know when they've had a possible exposure," Nestler said.

The union represents more than 500 building service, dining, and grounds employees on the ISU campus, she said. It also covers some clerical and health care staff.

"We certainly understand the university's need to protect an individual’s medical information," Nestler said. "We just want to know when someone's been exposed, so that employee can start doing a self-assessment right away and scrutinize their own symptoms more."

Nestler said that's especially true when health department contact tracers are struggling to keep up with new cases.

Health Department Administrator Jessica McKnight said the agency has onboarded more contact tracers in recent weeks. But they're still behind, she said, as the county sees active caseloads of more than 1,200.

McKnight said those who test positive will likely hear from the testing site before they hear from the health department. It's then up to the coronavirus-positive person to take precautions.

"Next steps would be to notify their employer and then their employer start that contact tracing process," she said.

McKnight wouldn't comment specifically on ISU's notification policy. But she said employers in general are better suited to know who that worker may contact.

"We're encouraging employers—they really should inform their employees of possible exposures, so even if they were not a close contact, just informing them that there was a potential exposure," McKnight said. "Because again, we want everyone to be on the look out for those symptoms and taking all those measures to prevent further spread, while making sure that we're maintaining confidentiality."

Notification gets even more tricky because universities have other limits on what they can say about students.

Elizabeth Timmerman Lugg teaches education law at ISU. She said schools generally cannot release student information without their consent. Those protections come from the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA.

Timmerman Lugg said the law governs what you can do with student education records, like transcripts, disciplinary records, and class schedules.

"There's also an exception to FERPA—which is the 'but', my wrench to throw in this," she said. "There are several exceptions that allow the release of student records under certain conditions."

Timmerman Lugg said there's one exception that stands out to her: "in the case of health and safety emergency." She said the university could potentially use this exception, especially if an emergency declaration is made by state or local health authorities.

"What would make it easier is if they would just say, 'McLean County is in the middle of a health and safety emergency,' and basically roll out the protocols and give a green light to the university to help out—to say, ‘We are swamped, so we are delegating to ISU these specific duties,'" she said.

Timmerman Lugg said even that might not be necessary in the case of student workers, since FERPA only covers educational records—not employee records.

But what might be even easier, she said, is having the health department issue blanket notifications when there’s been an outbreak in a specific department or school.

Timmerman Lugg said she understands the university's reluctance to push FERPA limits. She said a violation could cut federal funding to the university at a time when it’s already “bleeding money” from the pandemic.

Renee Nestler, with the labor union, also empathizes.

“Depending on the dynamics of the work group, they might be able to figure out, 'Oh, you know, it's the one person that's not here today,'" Nestler said. "But on some level, it's trying to also balance the health needs of everybody else that's still working, and the need for the university to continue to be as safe as possible.”

University spokesman Eric Jome said, at this point, the university is not amending its policy on notification of faculty, staff, or students. He said trained individuals working with the health department still need to make the final determination of who is a close contact.

Jome adds ISU partners with MCHD to provide more people to train as contact tracers,noting these individuals will work on behalf of the health department, not ISU.

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.