The election bumped Ebola out of the headlines for a day or two this week, but most of us knew that would not last. No sooner was one New York television station done reporting on the Senate races than it turned back to its coverage of "Ebola in America." The most recent development is the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation's announcement that the number of people under "active monitoring" for the Ebola virus more tripled this week. There are also rumors of a cover-up.
Some of the affected people are health care workers who have attended to the physician currently being treated for Ebola. The lab workers who processed the doctor's blood tests and the EMTs who took him to the hospital are also being monitored. Remember, Ebola has a 21-day incubation period; these people will be monitored for fever and other symptoms for three weeks following their last contact with the patient.
Still, to continue with our discussion, if they develop symptoms, will the illness be covered by workers' compensation?
Health care workers have a particularly tough row to hoe when it comes to infectious diseases. With some illnesses, the answer is a little easier to get to. Say a nurse is pricked by a syringe that had been used on a patient with HIV or hepatitis -- she is performing a function that is peculiar to health care workers, and, so, the infection passes the more difficult of the two threshold tests (see our Nov. 1 post for a more in-depth explanation of the tests).
When determining compensability, then, it's important to look at both the illness and how it is transmitted. It is also important to look at the worker's job and what task exposed the worker to the illness.
Perhaps the scariest thing about Ebola is that you don't have to be an infectious disease specialist to contract the virus. All you need is direct contact with the blood or body fluids like saliva and sweat of a person who is actively sick. For health care workers, the risk of contracting the virus is the same as contracting the flu -- except, of course, that there are multiple safeguards in place to prevent the transmission of Ebola, and many more people pass through a hospital or clinic with the flu than with Ebola.
The key to making either the basis of a workers' comp claim or a negligence claim is whether the facility had implemented all of the safeguards. As we have seen with this outbreak, that can be a moving target, but it may just be a place to start.
Source: Insurance Journal, "Is Ebola Compensable Under Workers’ Compensation?" Christopher J. Boggs, Oct. 10, 2014