Linn County supervisors wait hours to tell their own workers of a potential coronavirus exposure

Officials assert health privacy law kept them from alerting courthouse

Linn County Courthouse in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Linn County Courthouse in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Linn County supervisors said Wednesday a health privacy law prevented them from alerting their own employees for nearly a day after learning of potential coronavirus exposure at the Linn County Courthouse.

Supervisor Stacey Walker said he was notified by the county’s risk manager about 10:30 p.m. Monday that an employee had been sent home with COVID-19 symptoms. He informed the other two supervisors and they directed a crew to deep clean the area where the employee had worked at the courthouse.

But an email reviewed by The Gazette shows the supervisors did not alert county employees to the issue until 5:35 p.m. Tuesday.

“Our facilities department is taking extra precautions today to clean and disinfect the entire building using state-of-the-art equipment with cleaning agents that are recommended by the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention),” the email said.

The county owns the courthouse, which has been closed to the public but still is the workplace for county workers, as well as the elected county attorney and judges.

The judicial staff are state employees. Nonetheless, they learned Tuesday morning that a janitor may have been exposed. Kellee Cortez, the 6th Judicial District court administrator, consulted with Chief Judge Patrick Grady and sent an email to employees, Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden and others.

No test results had been completed but after Grady consulted with county facilities management and government services officials, he decided to send employees home out of caution, canceled all in-person hearings and closed the courthouse for the day.

Vander Sanden said Wednesday he was upset how the situation had been handled. He shared an email he sent to the supervisors, expressing his frustration over the county’s “mishandling.”

“Why did no one in a position of authority with the county advise my office of a potential COVID-19 exposure in the courthouse?” he asked in the email. “If the health and safety of county employees is truly a matter of concern to you, I would think that a timely phone call or email was in order. The lack of communication over something so important is perplexing to me.”

Vander Sanden said staff in his office saw state employees making “a mass exodus” out of the building Tuesday, which he noted doesn’t usually happen unless there is a fire alarm or other safety issue.

Supervisors Walker, Ben Rogers and Brent Oleson told The Gazette during a phone interview Wednesday they were limited in what they can tell county employees, the public and the media because of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, more commonly known as HIPAA.

They said the were in contact Tuesday with the county’s human resources and legal departments, along with Linn County Public Health, to learn what they could share.

Walker said they were acting on the “guidance” they had received.

He said that under HIPAA, the supervisors could not say a county employee was involved in the possible medical issue without the employee’s permission.

Walker said the supervisors felt better about the situation when they learned the employee hadn’t worked in the building since April 2.

Vander Sanden said he had met with the supervisors before they spoke with The Gazette.

Based on their “frank and open discussion,” he thought they had “established a more organized line of communication to follow in the future incidents. I don’t think we’ll have a repeated incident like this.”

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