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'Very cringeworthy' | Mecklenburg County HR sends email identifying workers who haven't given proof of vaccine

An internal email was mistakenly sent only to unvaccinated employees, identifying them. County Manager Dena Diorio said it was not a HIPAA violation.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — An email explaining that Mecklenburg County was reinstating its COVID-19 testing policy for unvaccinated workers intended for all employees was mistakenly sent only to unvaccinated employees Monday, thus identifying them, county officials said. 

County Manager Dena Diorio explained the situation to the Board of County Commissioners and other staff members in a memo, saying in part, "the email that went out this morning was intended to go to all employees, not just a select group." A source told WCNC Charlotte's Hunter Sáenz the employees' names were visible in the "To" field of the email, making them visible to others who received the message.

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The purpose of Monday's message was to inform all employees that the county had reinstated its suspension policy for violations of the COVID-19 testing protocol for unvaccinated workers. The county suspended the policy due to the overwhelming demand for COVID-19 tests after the holidays. 

"It was very cringeworthy," Commissioner Laura Meier said. "This is a big mistake." 

She said she found out about it after receiving an email from someone who received the initial email and was upset it outed the individual. 

"I know that people felt exposed, I know they felt vulnerable," Meier said. 

She said it's an unfortunate human error, but that she understands the uproar. 

"I mean I get the mistake, and I'm just so sorry it happened," Meier said. 

WCNC Charlotte wanted to confirm the county's position that they did not violate HIPAA. So, we asked attorneys at Van Kampen Law, a group of employment lawyers. 

"I get the people who felt like they've been wronged. Unfortunately, HIPAA isn't really the correct avenue to go down here," attorney Kat Cox said. "There is no HIPAA violation here."

She said HIPAA protects individuals from certain entities sharing their personal health information. Those entities include hospitals, doctors, and health workers, not Mecklenburg County. 

"If you go to your doctor and disclose a bunch of protected health information," Cox said. "And then your doctor goes and tells their friends, their family at dinner, other members of the public -- that would be a violation of HIPAA." 

"It normally covers asking about protected health information and also disclosing that to other individuals," she said. "But only for covered entities. So, if you're outside that scope, HIPAA would not be legal recourse." 

Diorio confirmed Monday that the policy, which requires unvaccinated employees to take weekly COVID-19 tests, is back in effect. Employees who haven't submitted vaccination proof or weekly testing proof will be suspended under the policy. 

Diorio said unvaccinated employees who received the email will receive an apology letter, and the email will be resent to all workers. 

Contact Hunter Sáenz at hsaenz@wcnc.com and follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

Flashpoint is a weekly in-depth look at politics in Charlotte, North Carolina, South Carolina, and beyond with host Ben Thompson. Listen to the podcast weekly.
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