Must a coronavirus carrier disclose that information?

Find out a Rabbi's perspective on this newly relevant question.

'Imagine if we had, God forbid, tested positive and had further exposed our neighbor' (photo credit: TNS)
'Imagine if we had, God forbid, tested positive and had further exposed our neighbor'
(photo credit: TNS)
One of the many dilemmas that have emerged from the coronavirus pandemic is the question of confidentiality. When a person tests positive for COVID-19, do they have a halachic obligation to inform those that they were in contact with over the previous two weeks?

This could include family members, neighbors, colleagues and even shopkeepers in which one spent an extended period of time together. I believe that the answer is yes and that there is no reason why people should feel ashamed in sharing this information with those who need to know. 

The Torah speaks of spiritual impurity (tumah) as being contagious. In various cases, one can transfer this contagion to other people or objects through direct contact and sometimes even via physical materials like cushions on which someone sat. Additionally, kohanim are prohibited from entering cemeteries and other locations in which corpses may be found. The Talmud mandates that gravesites must be immediately marked, even during the intermediate days of festivals, in order to prevent passersby from contamination. Failure to mark such sites is a violation of placing spiritual stumbling blocks before others.

Similarly, the Torah mandates that a person with a leprous affection must call out, “Unclean, unclean!” to prevent spreading this contagion and, significantly, to allow others the opportunity to pray for their rehabilitation (Leviticus 13:45). As Rabbi Moshe Dov Wallner of Ashkelon noted, these texts mandate that someone with a contagious disease must let others know before they visit them in the hospital.

A good precedent for our current situation arises in a medieval ruling found in Sefer Hasidim regarding shared bathhouses. The author rules that someone who has a contagious skin disease must not enter the bathhouse with others unless they first inform them. 

To support this claim, he cites a power trio of biblical verses: 1) “You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind;” 2) You should not stand idly over the blood of your brother; 3) “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” I think the last verse is most poignant for our period. Mutual responsibility dictates letting people know of their potential exposure so that they can take the necessary precautionary measures. 

To exemplify the point, I’ll give a personal example. My family was exposed to someone who became significantly sick from COVID-19. Magen David Adom therefore authorized for my family to be tested. Thank God, we were all negative. Yet in the meantime, I informed our neighbors, including one who works in a hospital and had spent time in our home.

Imagine if we had, God forbid, tested positive and had further exposed our neighbor. The possible implications for his patients are frightful, and I’m thankful we all took precautionary measures even as they turned out to be unwarranted. 

Halachic literature includes extensive discussion about the balance between the prohibition of gossiping (particularly in cases of social stigma) and the requirement to care for public health. Sexually-transmitted diseases like AIDS, for example, raised many difficult questions. Must someone tell their spouse that they are HIV-positive? Yes. In fact, some argued that failure to disclose a deadly STD to a sexual partner is the equivalent of murder and that the disease carrier could be deemed a rodef (pursuer) who must be stopped.

Doctors also have a duty to report to the local health authorities when it comes to infectious diseases. Yet someone who is HIV-positive does not need to publicize this to the whole world because they are not a threat of contagion to them. 

For the same reason, there is no license for people to gossip about others with a disease since spreading this information has no concrete communal benefit. The balance between preserving communal health and harmful gossip is captured in the verse that intertwines two important principles. “You shall not go about as a tale bearer. You shall not stand idly over your brother’s blood (Leviticus 19:16). As Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar and Rabbi Naftali Berlin explained, you shouldn’t gossip about others, but not at the cost of endangering the broader public. 

In the case of the coronavirus, there is no reason for social stigma. No one did anything immoral to contract the virus, and no one is purposely trying to spread it. Anyone can get it (without even knowing) and anyone can spread it (without even knowing). True, perhaps a person could’ve been more careful about social distancing, but there are many cases of people who got the virus even while being super cautious. 

In any case, there’s no reason to feel shame in this unprecedented situation. It’s also nearly impossible to prove that a given person transmitted it to someone else, especially at this stage of community spread. (There is certainly no medical or halachic justification for anyone to egregiously and implausibly claim that one particular person had spread the virus throughout the community. Such gossipmongers should go into quarantine… until at least Yom Kippur.)

Beyond preventing spread of contagion, there may be additional benefits of disclosure. A friend and rabbinic colleague in Modi’in was hospitalized for COVID-19. He was very open about it with his congregation and even on social media. His openness facilitated people to go into quarantine while also allowing others to pray for him. A rabbinic colleague in New Jersey publicly disclosed the information, which led to many other carriers to share their fears and emotions with him. 

In any case, the core obligation is to disclose the information only to those whom one may have exposed in order to protect them and the broader society at large. When mandated by law, as in Israel, one must also report their recent movement and activities to the local health authorities. 

May God grant us the fortitude and moral fabric to overcome this pandemic.

The writer directs the Tikvah Overseas Students Institute and is a postdoctoral fellow at Bar-Ilan University Law School.