H1N1 outbreak notification policies vary by workplace

November 04, 2009|By BRIDGET DiCOSMO

HAGERSTOWN -- Health professionals disagree on whether employers would be providing any benefit to staff members by notifying them if a co-worker is sick with H1N1, also known as swine flu.

Col. Peter Weina, director of the Division of Viral Diseases at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Md., said he doesn't believe it is appropriate within a workplace to advertise the fact that someone has been diagnosed with H1N1.

"No medical benefit can be gained from this," Weina wrote Wednesday in an e-mail to the Herald-Mail.

Weina said there often is misinformation surrounding diagnosis of H1N1 symptoms, making it difficult to be certain that employees are being given accurate information.

But because some people might have conditions that put them at higher risk of becoming seriously ill from H1N1, such as pregnancy or asthma, knowing they might have been exposed to the influenza strain might allow them to take extra precautions, said Wilbur Chen, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine's Medical Center for Vaccine Development in Baltimore.


Someone at high risk might be able to get anti-viral drugs from their family doctor to decrease their chances of contracting the illness, Chen said.

"It's at least nice to know if you've been exposed, so you can take yourself out of mixing around with others and exposing someone else," Chen said.

The H1N1 virus is thought to spread the same way as other strains of seasonal flu, through coughing and sneezing, or surface contact with something handled by an infected person, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Weina pointed out that everyone should be taking preventative measures against contracting H1N1 whether they think they've been exposed or not.

Having a co-worker who has been infected with H1N1 doesn't necessarily mean that everyone in the workplace will be exposed, especially if that person practices good personal hygeine, said Kathy Morrisey, director of infection control at Washington County Hospital.

People are just as likely to risk exposure to H1N1 while shopping at the mall or grocery store, Morrisey said.

Hospital staff members are instructed to stay home if they are experiencing flu-like symptoms -- such as fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue -- and are not to return to work until they have been without a fever for 24 hours without the use of fever reducers, Morrisey said.

"The key is not coming to work," Morrisey said.

Morissey said staff members would not be informed if a hospital employee was sick with H1N1 because it would breech confidentiality issues.

Chen said supervisors at University of Maryland School of Medicine would be informed in the event a colleague was sick with H1N1, both to protect employees and because it could present a liablity risk with patients.

At Kaplan University in Hagerstown, any faculty member who becomes ill with H1N1 is asked to let a manager know, and all students and teachers will be alerted that there is a confirmed case on campus, spokeswoman Abby Hunt said Wednesday.

Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has only had one confirmed H1N1 case involving an employee, but department policy includes notifying all staff members at that institution of the illness, department spokesman Mark Vernarelli said Wednesday.

Earlier this year, Maryland judiciary employees attended a pandemic planning meeting and discussed possible responses in the case of an H1N1 outbreak, Washington County Circuit Clerk Dennis Weaver said Wednesday.

While specifics as to why a court employee was out sick likely would not be disclosed to other staff members, efforts would be made to stop the spread of H1N1, Weaver said.

"In a roundabout way, we might remind everyone to stay home if they have symptoms of H1N1," Weaver said.

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