Nova Scotia

Rumour of COVID-19 exposure at IWK suggests staff shared private info: memo

Rumours that a patient at the IWK Health Centre lied about their symptoms only to later test positive for COVID-19 signals a potential privacy breach by hospital staff, according to an internal memo obtained by CBC News.

IWK Health Centre can't outright clarify situation because of privacy laws

An internal memo to IWK staff, obtained by CBC News, says privacy breaches are unacceptable and increase anxiety among patients and families. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

Rumours that a patient at the IWK Health Centre lied about their symptoms only to later test positive for COVID-19 signals a potential privacy breach by hospital staff, according to an internal memo obtained by CBC News.

The memo to IWK staff in Halifax from the hospital's executive leadership team said the content of recent social media posts and media inquiries "strongly suggests that IWK staff member(s) were inappropriately sharing patient care related information."

It said privacy breaches are unacceptable and increase "the anxiety of patients and families which may result in their delaying or avoiding necessary care" at the hospital.

The IWK has been trying to reassure families the hospital is safe after a social media post created more than a week ago left some worrying about the risk of COVID-19 in the facility.

The situation has put the IWK in a bind because it legally cannot comment on a patient's diagnosis or what happened due to privacy concerns.

Post had potentially identifying details

In a statement, the hospital said confidentiality and the privacy of its patients and their families "is of utmost importance."

"IWK Health does not provide any information regarding patients and their care, and does not confirm if a patient is receiving care on site or virtually," it said.

While the social media post didn't name the patient, it included details that could be identifying.

The post has since received hundreds of shares, snowballing with more theories and rumours.

Some parents have said they're considering not taking their children to the hospital as a result, which concerns the IWK.

"Patients and families should never delay or avoid receiving care at the IWK or any health institution at any time," said hospital spokesperson Nick Cox.

"The safety of our patients, families and staff is at the core of what we do."

Hospital outlines safety protocols

The internal memo to staff emphasized the COVID-19 protection procedures in the hospital and said if a patient is diagnosed, contact tracing begins promptly.

Cox told CBC News the hospital works closely with infection control experts. He also pointed out that patient appointments are intentionally staggered, so there's limited contact within the hospital.

Patients are required to remain physically distant in waiting rooms, sanitize their hands and wear masks in public spaces.

He could not say if any staff were potentially exposed to COVID-19, citing privacy reasons. However, Cox said all staff wear personal protective equipment in clinical settings.

Public exposure warnings

Some people have questioned why Public Health has not sent out a possible exposure warning to the public, similar to what has been issued about some restaurants and businesses in the province.

Brendan Elliott, a spokesperson for the provincial health authority, said public warnings are only made when officials can't locate or contact everyone who may be at risk of exposure to COVID-19.

"If Public Health believes there may be people who were exposed to COVID-19 who investigators are not aware of, then a public advisory may be issued," he said.

At the IWK, Cox said he hopes addressing the hospital's protocols will put patients and their families at ease.

"If you need care, come get your care," he said. "You'll be receiving it in the safest place possible."

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