EDITORIAL: Public deserves to know when York County worker has virus

York Dispatch Editorial Board

When an employee for a private business tests positive for coronavirus, it has become fairly common practice to let the public know about it.

We've seen several announcements over the past few months from convenience stores, restaurants and other places where members of the public frequently go.

When an employee becomes sick or tests positive, businesses take precautions. Buildings receive a deep cleaning. Often they close for several days and other employees are tested. 

When Harley-Davidson learned last week that an employee had tested positive, it sent workers at the Springettsbury Township plant home and deep-cleaned the area before bringing workers back in. We know because Harley responded to questions from reporters.

But when rumors began to swirl this week that a worker in the prothonotary's office at the York County Judicial Center had tested positive for the coronavirus, York County officials kept mum. 

More:Few details released about York County employee who tested positive for COVID-19

More:Some employees, citizens flouting mask order inside York County Judicial Center

York County Prothonotary Allison Blew speaks with Judge Clyde Vedder at a naturalization ceremony on the steps of the York County Administrative Center Tuesday, May 12, 2020. Bill Kalina photo

Prothonotary Allison Blew didn't return messages asking for clarity. President Judge Joseph C. Adams said any comment on the matter would have to come from the county commissioners.

An initial statement on Wednesday said the county would not confirm or deny any reports "to protect the privacy of our employees and the public."  

Shortly before 4:30 p.m. — after a reporter argued that officials have a duty to be transparent during a public health crisis — they sent out an updated statement:

"In the best interest of our employees and the community we serve, we wish to acknowledge that one of our employees recently tested positive for COVID-19.  Appropriate case investigation is in process and necessary safeguards have been implemented," it reads.

That didn't exactly answer the question of where among the many buildings run by the county the person who tested positive works, when he or she was working or who he or she might have come into contact with, or what the county intends to do in terms of sanitizing or contacting people who might have come into contact with the infected person. 

And that could be a large number of people. Hundreds of people go into the judicial center every day, from the county office workers to judges and court employees to attorneys, not to mention the members of the public.

York County President Judge Joseph Adams appears at a press conference at the commissioner's chambers Monday, March 17, 2020. At the meeting, York County President Commissioner Julie Wheeler declared a state of emergency in the county due to the Coronavirus. Bill Kalina photo

Plus, the judicial center is the kind of place where the virus spreads rapidly. People spend time together in groups in rooms that are not always large. Courtrooms have been reconfigured to accommodate social distancing as much as possible, but places such as the prothonotary's office have limited space for a number of workers as well as the public. Adams issued an order for everyone to wear masks in public areas, but that rule isn't being enforced and many people aren't following it. In offices, the department head has control over masking.

But this is how governmental entities seem to be handling the pandemic, by not telling people what's going on within their own walls while expecting candor from everyone else. Case in point: Gov. Tom Wolf's expected veto of a bill unanimously passed in the Legislature to ensure Right-to-Know officers continue doing their job even during an emergency. 

People have a right to privacy, especially when it comes to health issues. At the same time, members of the public need to know if they have come into contact with a person who has a virus that has killed more than 140,000 Americans in the past six months.

There's no need for the county to release the name of the employee. But the public has the right to know where the person was working and when, and they need to know that the county has taken precautions to make sure the area is thoroughly cleaned before others are allowed to return. It's a matter of public safety.