COVID-19 communications: What to tell your employees

A patient in your care has tested positive for COVID-19. Do you tell your team and risk opening Pandora’s Box? Or do you stay silent and risk opening Pandora’s Box?

The situation we find ourselves in with the latest coronavirus – COVID-19 – is now a pandemic, and the amount of information flying around continues to grow. While much of the information is true and valuable, there is also noise and chatter that can make it difficult to discern the kernels of truth.

Last week, our firm’s COVID-19 communications guidance centered on three categories: internal, external, financial – plus a special focus on long-term care facilities.

Today, as this extremely fluid situation unfolds, we examine a fundamental question that is looming on the minds of many healthcare facility leaders:

“Do I tell my employees that we’ve had a patient test positive?”

As strategic communications consultants, our instinct is to advocate for being as transparent as you can be. Yet there are plenty of reasons to resist sharing, including fear of a media swarm, staff walkouts/sick-outs, rampant appointment and surgery cancellations, sick patients not seeking care at the facility in question and more.

Let’s explore the issue. (Note that Modern Healthcare published a related piece called “Hospitals balance disclosure and privacy as COVID-19 spreads.” Well worth reading.)

Advantages of Sharing

  • Controlling the narrative. Assuming you have up-to-date protocols and resources in place, then every test positive for COVID-19 is a chance to ease fears and inspire confidence in your team’s ability to care for their community. Clear is kind. Share what’s happened. What you’ve done. What your stock of supplies is. What training is in place. And that you are open for business to care for the sick, just like always.
  • Building trust. Authenticity has a long shelf life. Telling your employees and clinicians that your facility has a patient who tested positive is an opportunity to own your culture, especially if you are pursuing a culture of engagement. This issue will be around for a while, and when it’s gone there will be something else. Everyone will remember how their employer treated them during this time, regardless of their proximity to it. Those memories will set the tone for whatever comes next.
  • Motivating the team. By getting everyone on the same page and imparting that sense of “we’re all in this together,” the entire team can be rallied to double down on your mission of care.
  • Quieting the noise. Nothing mitigates speculation like the truth. Or limits the lifespan of chatter. So, lay it out. Tell the right story. Face fear with facts.
  • Being first. Yours is the voice of authority and credibility. After all, you are the custodian of your community’s health, and you are experiencing – and helping manage – this in real time.

Risks with Keeping Mum

  • Losing control of the story. By not sharing, you invite others to fill the silence, fueling suspicion. Your internal community will whisper, unions could take advantage of innuendo, etc. In the absence of your story, individuals may look elsewhere for the news of what’s going on. Some of it may be accurate, some not, some accurate but spun in a way that paints your organization in a negative light. Regardless, you’ll be trying to catch up, not lead.
  • Increasing HIPAA violations. Now for a reality check. We know from experience that it’s hard to prevent employees from looking up records to identify the patient, who treated the patient, where the patient came from and what departments could have been exposed. Again, absent your story, employees may look elsewhere for it.

Proper Protocol

(this is a general overview; be sure to speak with your compliance team and appropriate counsel to ensure you’re getting it right):

Providers who experience a need for testing or a positive test are to be in close contact with the CDC and the state public health department and follow their guidelines and protocols:

  • If a patient presents with symptoms consistent with COVID-19, they are promptly asked to wear a surgical mask and moved to an isolated room.
  • The team makes sure to wear a mask as well and, after assessing the patient’s healthcare needs and receiving information about recent travel and potential exposure, will determine if the patient requires admission, a period of self-quarantine or another type of care.
  • If the care team determines a patient should be tested for COVID-19, the providers will contact the health department which makes the final decision and facilitates the testing.

Takeaway

Ask yourself: Do your employees understand what you are doing regarding COVID-19?

Any facility that has yet to encounter a case could benefit from communications with its people on the subject of, “When we have a case, this is how you’ll know,” and walk through the process for everyone. That process might include having a designated in-house SWAT team ready to roll, having your story built about your work in the community, outlining the ways you are prepared, and making sure your team knows the truth about COVID-19. Again, we’re back to facts over fiction.

Creating and implementing that plan reminds everyone of their roles and illustrates leadership’s vision for how they’d like to handle the situation. It also might turn up communication gaps, which are important to close before a real case hits.

We look for the best in people, we assume good intentions and we belive that most people want to help each other. Employers who choose not to tell their teams about a COVID-19 case are denying their teams an opportunity to be there for each other – and their community – and people remember that, too.

Emme Nelson Baxter
ebaxter@jarrardinc.com