09 February 2016

Zika Virus: What Health Care Providers and Employers Need to Know

The global infection rate of the Zika virus has increased rapidly over the past several months. More than two dozen cases have been confirmed in individuals returning to the United States from traveling abroad. With spring break around the corner, health care providers should be prepared to treat possible cases of Zika virus and answer questions from concerned patients.

From a legal perspective, physicians and other health care professionals are required to report certain infections and communicable diseases to their local health department. While the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has not listed the Zika virus as a reportable disease, health care providers are permitted to report other conditions such as the Zika virus. The report should include the full legal name of the patient and parent/guardian if applicable, patient’s current address, telephone number, date of birth, age, sex, race and ethnic origin.

Health care employers often wonder what questions they can ask their employees about possible communicable diseases such as the Zika virus without violating the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). First, under the ADA, employers may not make disability-related inquiries or require medical examinations of employees unless: (1) the employer has a reasonable belief based on objective evidence that the employee will not be able to perform their essential job functions, or (2) the employee poses a direct threat to themselves or others. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued guidance regarding pandemics and has stated that employers should take guidance from the CDC or other public health authorities in determining whether a virus is a direct threat. The CDC has not issued a statement indicating the persons infected with Zika virus are a direct threat to others through casual human contact, and therefore there is not a basis at this time to determine that an employee with the Zika virus poses a direct threat to others. Relatedly, there are currently no quarantine requirements issued by public health agencies.

Asking about travel would not be a disability-related inquiry, and there is nothing unlawful about asking employees about recent travel to affected countries. But, employees should not be singled out for questioning based on race or national origin and co-workers and managers may need to be educated regarding the fact that transmission of the Zika virus does not occur through casual human contact.