HSE’s disclosure of medical data to employers highlights flaws of testing system – Naughten

In Health, News by Denis Naughten

The confirmation by the Minister for Health that medical results were shared with employers before employees clearly shows that the most basic data protection rights of individuals are being completely ignored by the HSE, says Denis Naughten TD.

Denis Naughten disclosed the breach of basic data protection standards in Dáil Éireann last Thursday and immediately furnished examples of staff in meat plants and nursing homes who were informed of their Covid test results by their employer.

“The suggestion has been that this was done to overcome a language barrier, but in all instances that I furnished to Minister Harris these were Irish people because most of the foreign employees are afraid to speak up,” stated Denis Naughten.

“But the key question here is why did the HSE blatantly disregard very basic data protection laws regarding medical test results? I believe it is because those with responsibility for the management of Covid-19 are left in the invidious position of either waiting weeks for the contact tracing system to inform staff of their results or trying to get the information out quickly in order to reduce the spread of the infection. This cannot be tolerated, results should be provided directly to those tested as soon as they become available,” stated Denis Naughten.

Speaking about the delays in informing people of their results, he added: “I personally know of one family who waited seven weeks to get results and ultimately only received them after I brought the delay to the direct attention of HSE national management.

“These delays in contacting those tested and following up on their close contacts is dictating how clusters of infection are being managed. For example, I could not understand that if there was such a swift turnaround in testing, as outlined to TDs by the HSE, why meat plants were not closed by public health officials until the Covid screening results came back.

“But clearly the reason for the current management of clusters is because of the inordinate delays in providing results through the contact tracing system.

“What seems to be happening is that positive results are prioritised for disclosure and negative results are long-fingered because all results would have been issued to the contact tracing system by the laboratory at the one time. There is no other reason why there would be weeks of a differential between staff in a single facility being informed if they are positive or negative.

“This failure to get the system right is undermining the heroic efforts by every citizen in the State to stop the spread of this virus and we cannot allow a second wave of infection under any circumstances,” concluded Denis Naughten.

ENDS.

 

Editor’s Note:

Watch Denis Naughten’s disclosure to Dáil Éireann here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g9NerJlfTAQ

(Watch the full discussion here: https://youtu.be/5G_r6PSoLLk)

 

Letter from Minister Harris to Denis Naughten:

 

 

18 May 2020

 

Deputy Denis Naughten T.D.

Denis.Naughten@oireachtas.ie

 

Dear Deputy

 

Thank you for forwarding details of issues that have been raised with you in relation to the communication of results of COVID-19 tests in meat processing plants and nursing homes.

 

The HSE has informed the Department that in order to ensure that control measures for outbreaks are put in place quickly, the Departments of Public Health have issued in some instances results to the managers of meat processing plants to ensure that the Medical Officer of Health is complying with their legislative responsibility.  The manager of each plant has a responsibility to manage their service, ensure effective cohorting and ensure that infectious staff are not at work and potentially spreading infection.

 

In certain situations (e.g. where mass screening has been arranged and a significant number of positive results for employees come through in a single batch), it has been necessary in the interests of public health to convey results of cases confirmed COVID-19 to the management of the plant to ensure the workers quickly can be sent home from the factory floor for their own health and that of their fellow employees. Employees with confirmed COVID-19 also receive a phone call from Departments of Public Health or the HSE Contact Management Programme (CMP) detailing what they need to do in response to their diagnosis including self-isolation and self-care.

 

The HSE has informed the Department that in the case of ‘A MEAT PLANT’ in ‘A TOWN’ the results of tests from testing sessions conducted on the 22 April and 30 April, that the results for these tests were notified to the individuals themselves who then informed ‘A MEAT PLANT’.  If there were any outstanding positive results that ‘A MEAT PLANT’ were not aware of the HSE shared those results with the ‘A MEAT PLANT’ Occupational Health doctor. The doctor then arranged follow up of those specific cases. For those with negative results the HSE arranged for staff to be informed by sharing the results with the occupational health doctor who was able to inform the staff members.

 

In relation to the recent programme of mass testing in nursing homes, HSE has advised that in the majority of cases, Departments of Public Health contacted healthcare workers directly to inform them of a positive test result. However, they also advise that in some cases due to missing contact information and the volume of results, some results were communicated directly to management to enable the facility to take prompt action.

 

I would like to assure you that the Department is continuing to engage with the HSE on these issues to ensure appropriate communication protocols and processes are in place and adhered to for all COVID-19 testing.

 

Once again, thank you for raising these issues with me.

 

Yours sincerely

 

Simon Harris T.D.

 

Minister for Health

 

Contribution by Denis Naughten TD to Dáil Éireann on 14th May when questioning the Minister for Health

First Intervention:

Minister,  I have been watching the handling of the COVID-19 infection within the meat industry over the last number of weeks and it gives me no pleasure to say that I’m very seriously concerned by the manner in which this particular infection is being managed and I have a genuine fear that if this continues next week with the reopening of the economy, we could be looking at a resurgence of this virus.

Minister we have a serious problem within our meat plants, which should not come as a surprise because this is a global problem, that has sadly been replicated here in Ireland and our response to this can be at best described as lethargic.

We are now looking at clusters of infection surrounding meat plants where the levels of infection within the plants themselves is up on one third or, in some instances, half of the workforce.

This seriously brings into question the Covid protection measures implemented in the plants.

And yet despite this, the Minister for Agriculture assured me in the Dáil just two weeks ago that he was satisfied from the feedback from his officials in meat plants that everything was being done to minimise the spread on this infection.

What surprises me is that even though we had a problem in nursing homes because of delayed actions, the same was allowed to happen within our meat industry.

So Minister, Why did it take up to 6 weeks, after the first infections in the plants before screening of all staff took place?

Why has it taken up to 2 weeks to return test results for some meat plants employees if there is no backlog with testing?

Why were staff not instructed to self-isolate in the interim while awaiting test results?

Instead they returned to work the very next day into meat plants where public health doctors were concerned enough with the scale of infection to order testing of every employee.

Because of this failure to self-isolate staff, who potentially showed no sign of infection, they could have been spreading the infection asymptomatically and this has now resulted in a situation where negative results issued to employees are worthless as they could have become infected in the interim period by employees who are asymptomatic positive while awaiting results.

We have serious lessons to learn from the manner in which testing and delivery of results has taken place in our meat plants.

This is also the case in nursing homes where staff have been waiting up to 3 weeks for results.

These delays have seriously undermined the value of the screening process, so will the Minister now ensure that all residents and staff are retested immediately and results issued in a timely manner?

This also needs to be done in the meat plants and staff instructed to self-isolate until they have received a clear result.

 

Second Intervention:

Minister, the only conclusion that I can come to is that the delays that I have outlined are being used to wallpaper over the gross system failures, particularly in contact tracing

We have been informed as public representatives by the HSE that people are being given their results within a day of there return from the laboratory and those who are positive are being contacted by a health professional.

This is not happening and negative results are being long fingered for days and possibly weeks.

In fact the system is so bad that employers are being provided with a list of test results directly and they are the ones informing employees as to whether they are positive or negative for Covid-19.

So will the Minister now confirm that medical data is being shared with employers before employees and explain to me why this is happening?

And can I say that Minister, if you think the initial communication of test results is bad, the follow-up contact tracing is at very best intermittent and from my experience is failing fundamentally.

 

Third intervention:

Minister I’m not attributing blame but in keeping with the agriculture theme;

Minister I believe we as TDs are being fed organic fertiliser.

And as long as this happens and we are not given the truth then the public confidence in the management of this pandemic will be seriously undermined.

After such heroic efforts by every citizen in the State to stop the spread of this virus we cannot allow a second wave of infection under any circumstances.

But you cannot ask people to continue to make such efforts if the truth is being hidden from them.