A Hygienist Had Covid. Shouldn’t My Dentist Have Told Me?

The magazine’s Ethicist columnist on balancing health care providers’ privacy against patients’ concerns, creating an equitable vaccine system and more.

By Kwame Anthony Appiah

I was planning to make an appointment with a hygienist working under my dentist and was told by a third party that one of the hygienists had contracted Covid, been treated and was back to work. I am 69, and my nephew died of Covid last May. Four other relatives contracted the virus and recovered. I am nervous about the pandemic.

I requested not to be treated by that hygienist and received this email in response: “To protect the privacy of our staff, just as we do for our patients, we cannot confirm or deny if someone has recovered from the coronavirus. This would be a violation of HIPAA. Your request to not be seen by someone who tested Covid-19 positive was not appropriate, as C.D.C. guidelines state that after 14 days of quarantine, individuals are safe to go out in public. In addition, our clinicians wear appropriate P.P.E. for treatment (including N95 masks, face shields, gowns, gloves), and our office has implemented additional infection-control measures. We monitor for symptoms, take temperatures and measure oxygen saturation daily for everyone that comes into our suite. If this policy makes you uncomfortable, our office may not be a good fit for you.”

I have a problem with putting the privacy of an employee ahead of the concerns of a patient. I also thought that HIPAA applied only to disclosures by a doctor about their patients. Am I out of line to make this request? Should a doctor or dentist tell patients if a staff member has had the virus so that the patient can make an informed decision about treatment? Jack L. Schwartz, Los Angeles

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