COVID-19 Outbreaks Continue to Spread in California Workplaces

New data posted on the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) website documents an additional 1,292 workplace COVID-19 outbreaks and 17,638 workplace infections since CDPH first began posting workplace data online in March 2021.

Outbreaks are defined as three or more cases of COVID-19 at a worksite within a 14-day period. This new data was documented by CDPH between March 1 and April 5, and posted online on April 14.

This is an average of over 35 new workplace outbreaks and almost 490 new workplace infections per day.

These new outbreaks and infections are in addition to the 4,311 workplace outbreaks and 39,526 workplace infections that CDPH previously reported. Those outbreaks were documented in January and February of this year.

LOOKING DEEPER AT THE DATA

At first glance the CDPH website suggests that nothing much has changed since their first posting. That is because their website only shows cumulative outbreak and case numbers, and then highlights what CDPH chooses to call the “most common settings” for these outbreaks.

But, as I reported in my 48 Hills article on March 23, CDPH also provides a link to the raw data on which they base their reporting. What follows is a breakdown of some of the newly-reported outbreaks and cases in the new data.

The most worrisome category is HEALTH CARE & SOCIAL ASSISTANCE, with 548 new outbreaks, and a total of 10,337 new cases. This category includes the following sub-categories, among others:

+ Nursing care facilities (skilled nursing facilities)
154 new outbreaks, 5,571 new cases.

+ Residential care facilities, except skilled nursing facilities
257 new outbreaks, 3,775 new cases.

One would have hoped, given that skilled nursing facilities and residential care facilities were targeted early for the vaccine, that outbreaks and infections in these places would have been much less. Apparently not. The data does not differentiate between cases among workers and among residents. There is no information about particular facilities, so there is no simple way to investigate further.

The sub-category Hospitals accounted for 28 new outbreaks and 311 new cases. The old saw that hospitals make you sick seems to be in play here.

The HEALTH CARE & SOCIAL ASSISTANCE category also includes the following sub-categories:

+ Community services, including homeless shelters
33 new outbreaks, 220 new cases.

+ Child day care services
20 new outbreaks, 85 new cases.

The numerous sub-categories of MANUFACTURING PLANTS include 107 new outbreaks and 1,398 new cases.

This includes Cut & Sew Apparel Manufacturing, with 102 new cases in just three new outbreaks.

Also included in manufacturing plants:

+ Pharmaceutical & Medicine Manufacturing
71 new cases in just one new outbreak.

+ Soap, Cleaning Compound & Cosmetics Manufacturing
75 new cases in just two new outbreaks.

+ Medical Equipment & Supplies Manufacturing
8 new outbreaks, 152 new cases.

You might expect that these particular manufacturers would take special care to make their workers and their products safe. Again, expectations here do not match reality.  In addition, this data makes one wish that CDPH would tell the public which specific plants and products were involved in these outbreaks.

Here is the breakdown of some other categories:

RETAIL TRADE
149 new outbreaks, 1,363 new cases.

Retail trade encompasses everything from grocery stores (49 new outbreaks, 380 new cases) to automobile dealers (24 new outbreaks, 259 new cases) to department stores and discount stores (22 new outbreaks, 202 new cases).

TRANSPORTATION & WAREHOUSING
49 new outbreaks, 715 new cases.
This category includes 31 new outbreaks and 513 new cases in the sub-category Warehousing and Storage.

FINANCE & INSURANCE
20 new outbreaks, 119 new cases.
This category includes 10 new outbreaks and 74 new cases in the sub-category Banking and related activities.

REAL ESTATE & RENTAL & LEASING
34 new outbreaks, 254 new cases.

PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION
59 new outbreaks, 1,012 new cases.

This category includes the sub-category Public safety, including police, fire & correctional institutions, with 34 new outbreaks and 835 new cases. It would be informative to know how many of these outbreaks and cases are among prisoners, but CDPH provides us no clue.

EDUCATIONAL SERVICES
52 new outbreaks, 802 new cases.
This category includes the following sub-categories:

Colleges, universities, & professional schools, including junior colleges
13 new outbreaks, 538 new cases.

Elementary & secondary schools
36 new outbreaks, 192 new cases.

ACCOMODATION & FOOD SERVICES
103 new outbreaks, 167 new cases.
This category includes 89 new outbreaks and 480 new cases in the sub-category Restaurants & other food services.

If 167 new cases in the ACCOMODATION & FOOD SERVICES category and 480 new cases in the sub-category Restaurants & other food services doesn’t seem to add up, it is because it doesn’t. CDPH reduced the number of cases in the sub-category Traveler accommodation, presumably hotels, by 313, even though they recorded 14 new outbreaks. When I asked CDPH to explain this kind of discrepancy, I got the following response:

“From week to week, outbreaks can be newly reported or rescinded. (For example, a school/ LHD may report a potential outbreak, and then upon investigation it does not turn out to be an outbreak. This can happen for cases as well, such as when an individual tests positive but was already known to be a case, or it is determined after investigation that the test result was not valid, etc.).”

Does anyone want to bet that local public health officials and employers are as scrupulous in reporting new outbreaks and new cases as they are in rescinding previously-reported numbers? I know which side of that bet I would take.

Remember, the new outbreaks and new cases detailed above were documented in just 36 days, from March 1 through April 5.

WHAT YOU SEE IS NOT ALL YOU GET

So, as sobering as these numbers are, it is likely that they represent far less than a complete picture of workplace outbreaks and cases in California.

For example, CalMatters reported in March that when Cal/OSHA inspectors planned an inspection of one of the Foster Farms chicken processing plants in Fresno, local public health officials tipped off the company in advance. Fresno City Councilmember Miguel Arias told the Sacramento Bee:

“I’m disgusted by the level of intentional coordination to limit information on an outbreak by one of the largest employers in our city by the county and the employer.”

CDPH relies on these same local public health officials to report outbreaks and cases to them for inclusion in their data postings. And those same local public health officials rely on employers to report outbreaks and cases to them.

Multiply the Fresno story by who-knows-how-many other unreported cover-ups, and you can reasonably assume that the CDPH data tells only part of the story about workplace outbreaks and infections.

The pandemic is far from over, especially in the workplace.

This article was first published by 48 Hills.

Marc Norton’s website is MarcNortonOnline.

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