We are seeking guidance as a result of the following:
We have been informed (by the Health Department and via news media) an individual who now has been confirmed to have COVID-19 attended a program at one of our libraries. I have been asked the following questions:
1. To what extent is it the responsibility of the library to notify participants who attended the library program the person now diagnosed with COVID-19 attended?
If the library bears no responsibility, would you recommend the library, as a courtesy, notify attendees? What of others who may have been in the library at the time of the program - in many cases, the names of these individuals are not known...are we placing the library in a liability situation if we notify some, but not others? If you suggest a courtesy call, can you please provide suggested language?
2. CPLR 4509 speaks to the confidentiality of library records. We have always employed that this further applies to the identification of anyone using the library, those participating in programs, etc. -- meaning that NO information can be provided to anyone without a proper subpoena. Given that this is a situation related to the health and well-being of our community should (they have not, but this is a question that has been asked) the Health Department request the names of program participants does CPLR apply? If so, can you recommend a response to such a question.
Thank you for your assistance.
To address this very serious array of questions, we’ll take them one at a time.
To what extent is it the responsibility of the library to notify participants who attended the library program the person now diagnosed with COVID-19 attended?
The library is not obligated to notify individual members of the public regarding possible exposure; the county health department is obligated to notify the New York State Department of Health, and will coordinate the necessary level of response.
If the library bears no responsibility, would you recommend the library, as a courtesy, notify attendees?
In a time of pandemic, information is power. If the library has the capacity to notify attendees in a way that connects them to meaningful next steps, AND the County Health Department agrees that such notification will be helpful, then: yes, that would be a good thing to do.
However, because the slightest bit of mis-information in this step could potentially cause harm, such a courtesy should only be done in collaboration with the County Health Department.
What of others who may have been in the library at the time of the program - in many cases, the names of these individuals are not known...are we placing the library in a liability situation if we notify some, but not others?
An effort to empower people, through information, to take care of themselves and minimize the spread of disease will not expose the library to liability in the event only known attendees can be alerted. As stressed above, the greater risk would be mis-informing the public, which is why coordination with the county health department is key.
If you suggest a courtesy call, can you please provide suggested language?
For reasons of confidentiality and accessibility, the notice should not be a verbal phone call, but rather (and only if confirmed as helpful by the County Health Department), a written notice sent to the library’s user’s email address.
Suggested text for your library to review with the health department is:
Dear Library Member:
As you know, the [INSERT] [County Department of Health] is monitoring the development of COVID-19 in our county.
As you can see at the listing [here], the Department has determined that on DATE, a person with COVID-19 attended the [INSERT PROGRAM NAME] program at our library, which ran from TIME to TIME on DATE.
Because the [NAME] Library values every member, and because we believe knowledge is power, we are working with the county to notify individuals who we know were present at the event. As advised by the County’s guidance [here], encourage you to monitor yourself daily for symptoms of COVID-19.
Further information on what to do in the event of a health concern is on the Health Department’s website at [link].
Your library information is confidential and your participation in the [NAME] event will not be released unless upon your request.
Given that this is a situation related to the health and well-being of our community…[if] the Health Department request the names of program participants does CPLR  apply? If so, can you recommend a response to such a question.
Yes, the confidentiality requirement of CPLR 4509 absolutely still applies. Here is the language of that law:
Library records, which contain names or other personally identifying details regarding the users of public, free association, school, college and university libraries and library systems of this state, including but not limited to records related to the circulation of library materials, computer database searches, interlibrary loan transactions, reference queries, requests for photocopies of library materials, title reserve requests, or the use of audio-visual materials, films or records, shall be confidential and shall not be disclosed except that such records may be disclosed to the extent necessary for the proper operation of such library and shall be disclosed upon request or consent of the user or pursuant to subpoena, court order or where otherwise required by statute.
Because CPLR 4509 is so clear in its protection of patron information, I am not comfortable concluding that disclosure to a County Health Department is allowed for the “proper operation” of the library, or even in the case of a declared emergency. Even during times of trouble, we need to follow the law.
However, if the library has the capacity to do so, upon request of the Health Department, the library can write to the impacted patron, and see if the patron will request the disclosure.
Sample outreach to see if the patron wants their information released is:
As a result of a person who visited the [NAME] library testing positive for COVID-19, the county health department has the name and contact information of other patrons who visited during the [EVENT].
By law, your library information is confidential. Therefore, the [NAME] Library will only disclose your information if you request that we do so.
Please let us know if you would like us to release your name, address, and phone number on file with the library to the [COUNTY] County Health Department.
You may also directly call the County Health Department about this at [NUMBER]; if you do, tell this it is regarding the COVID-19 case as the [NAME] Library.
In the alternative, the County Health Department may obtain the information via a subpoena or court order.
Those are my answers to the member’s questions. Here are some additional thoughts:
Legal compliance and ethics are strong supports during tough times. Thank you to the member for thinking this situation through so thoroughly.
 10 NYCRR 2.16v