UPMC is telling its employees that they do not need to quarantine for 14 days after out-of-state travel.
This guidance differs from the quarantine recommendation that the Allegheny County Health Department made on Sunday, after a week of particularly high case counts. But on Wednesday, the county itself has taken steps to clarify some of its recommendations – and health department director Dr. Debra Bogen called UPMC’s guidance a “clear and thoughtful” interpretation of county policy.
In an email sent to employees on Tuesday, UPMC wrote that leadership and “expert teams” review “all recommendations and then craft our approach.” Pennsylvania’s largest medical system said it was not requiring employees to quarantine or be tested after returning from out-of-state travel, provided staff have not been exposed to the virus or are not experiencing symptoms.
Days before, the county had issued guidance urging that “when you return from your travels, especially if it was to a COVID-19 hotspot, consider self-quarantining for 14 days.” But UPMC’s letter noted the guidance was not mandatory, and said that routine domestic business travel between UPMC campuses is crucial for operations.
“Given the essential nature of our business as a health care provider and our key role in delivering needed, uninterrupted health care for our communities, UPMC refined our plans,” the health care provider said in the communication, titled “COVID-19 Update Special Edition: Travel Guidelines and Community Safety Measures.”
Still, UPMC said it would continue its ban on non-essential international business travel, and it discouraged travel to areas where stay-at-home orders are still in place. The medical system urged employees to comply with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and said people should wear face masks, frequently wash their hands and practice physical distancing.
Bogen endorsed UPMC's approach during a press conference Wednesday.
“I totally agree with their policy and procedure as it is written. It is very clear. It gives employees an opportunity to call a number to discuss their case and their specific travel plans,” said the health director, who left UPMC’s Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh in March to head the health department.
She said whether or not to quarantine depends on the kind of trip someone takes, and whether or not their job requires them to be around other people.
“If you had what we call ‘low-risk travel,’ such as you went camping in the woods with just members of your household and didn't have much contact with others, you probably don't need to quarantine or get tested regardless of your job,” Bogen said.
When it comes to reducing the spread of the coronavirus, she said it’s important to not, “let perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Regarding testing, Bogen had initially recommended that someone who couldn’t or didn’t want to quarantine for a full two weeks could end their home confinement after receiving two consecutive negative tests, conducted 48 hours apart. Bogen said that approach was based, in part, on the fact that the incubation period of the virus is two to 14 days. Testing too soon can produce a false negative result, and testing twice mitigates that risk.
But she acknowledged that taking two tests might be difficult.
“If you can only get tested once, I would consider waiting at least three days from your return before getting tested,” she said.
Others in the medical community had expressed doubts about the county’s initial approach.
Johns Hopkins University infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh Adalja told WESA’s The Confluence on Tuesday the county’s initial quarantine recommendation needed clarity and targeting, something Bogen provided on Wednesday.
Adalja, a former UPMC physician and current adjunct instructor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Rehabilitation and Health Science, pointed out that Allegheny County is located near two other states.
“There are many people, for example, who live in Robinson Township but commute to work in Weirton, West Virginia,” he said. “What about truck drivers? They’re leaving the state to go drive a truck. Do they need to quarantine every time they go to work?”
*This story was updated at 7:05 pm on July 1, 2020.