Coronavirus cases jump at L.A. County workplaces

A surge in coronavirus infections has prompted an increase in workplace case clusters in Los Angeles County, prompting health officials to recommend additional measures to curb transmission, including reducing crowding and expanding remote work when outbreaks are suspected.

“With the continued increase in cases, and now that you’re seeing the corresponding increase in hospitalizations, we’re really concerned,” LA County public health director Barbara Ferrer said of broader trends in the area.

“Our case numbers remain fairly high,” Ferrer said. And she expressed concern about the rising number of even more contagious Omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5, at a time when more and more people have lowered their vigilance and shed their masks.

Health officials have seen a “fairly steady increase in reported clusters of cases in the workplace” since April, Ferrer said, including 301 in the past week, up from 251 the week before. That’s a 20% increase between those two weeks, worse than the previous 12% week-on-week increase.

A cluster means that at least three coronavirus cases have been documented on a construction site within 14 days.

Under the early warning framework established by the county, officials consider this number of clusters to be extremely concerning. The number of workplace outbreaks in a single week is at its highest since early March.

There are a number of factors likely fueling the surge, Ferrer told reporters on Thursday. This includes fewer employees and customers wearing masks, more meetings and events being held indoors on-site, and some employees coming to work despite having COVID-19 symptoms.

“All workplaces should take sensible safety precautions at this time, including asking everyone to screen for symptoms before coming to work and stay home if they have symptoms, wear masks if indoors, and to avoid overcrowding in common areas such as break rooms and cafeterias,” Ferrer said.

LA County already strongly recommends indoor masking in public spaces, but Ferrer said construction sites with three or more coronavirus cases over a two-week period “must implement indoor masking for the entire exposed group of workers. And they must maintain an indoor mask requirement for at least 14 days after the last case in the workplace.”

Ferrer said the masking rule for workplace outbreaks is both a county and California Department of Occupational Safety and Health requirement, also known as Cal/OSHA. Workplaces must notify the LA County Department of Public Health within 48 hours of learning of a cluster of three coronavirus cases over a 14-day period; They can do this by calling (888) 397-3993 or filing a report online.

In locations with potential outbreaks, county officials are also recommending employers consider adopting remote work when possible — especially for workers at increased risk of severe COVID-19 illness.

“In workplaces where everyone is in their own office and there are closed doors and people don’t mix much, it’s much easier to keep the risk of transmission down. But that doesn’t happen on most construction sites,” Ferrer said.

And “in places where there’s a lot of close contact work-related, it makes a lot of sense to put in as many safeguards as possible when transmission has climbed that high,” she added.

While there were signs earlier this month that LA County’s recent coronavirus wave may have peaked, cases appear to be picking up again.

For the past week, the county has been reporting an average of about 5,100 cases per day, according to Ferrer. That’s a 20% jump from a week ago and one of the highest rates since cases hit a post-winter low in March. On a per capita basis, the latest rate equates to 355 cases per week per 100,000 population; a rate of 100 or more is considered a high transmission rate.

Hospitalizations are also steadily increasing. As of Wednesday, 808 coronavirus-positive patients were hospitalized across the country – a 34% increase over the past two weeks.

A larger proportion of LA County emergency room visits are attributed to coronavirus-related reasons. In the last week, 8% of ER visits were related to the coronavirus; a month ago it was 5%.

“Providers in both emergency departments and emergency centers have noted that this increased volume of COVID cases comes at a time when they are also seeing unusually high numbers of patients with other respiratory illnesses, including influenza, for the summer [respiratory syncytial virus]’ Ferrer said.

Hospitals are reporting staff shortages linked to high transmission rates of coronavirus infecting healthcare workers, Ferrer said.

LA County saw 8.3 new weekly coronavirus-positive hospital admissions per 100,000 residents, according to data released Thursday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; it’s the highest such rate since hospitalizations began rising again in mid-April. A rate of 10 or more would place LA County in what federal health officials have described as the high COVID-19 community level.

Based on current forecasts, the region could surpass this threshold by mid-July.

Should the county fall into that category for two weeks, a new mask mandate would be enacted for indoor public spaces.

“With our rising case numbers and increasing hospitalization rates, we have new concerns about the impact of COVID. And it’s now more likely that we’ll make it to that high community level sometime this summer,” Ferrer said.

The latest rate of new coronavirus-related hospitalizations in LA County exceeds the threshold rate of 8 set in an agreement by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers and unions on when mask requirements should return in certain television and film industry workplaces.

“They will resume indoor mask requirements along with several other safety measures,” Ferrer said.

Current trends make it all the more important to take sensible precautions to prevent infection – especially as the 4th of July long weekend fast approaches. This includes testing before meeting others and staying home if you are feeling under the weather or have been recently exposed to COVID-19.

Health officials also generally recommend gathering outdoors. For indoor events, residents should consider wearing masks and improving ventilation by opening windows and doors.

“As long as you put some sensible safeguards in place, you’re going to reduce the risk associated with these activities pretty drastically, and that would help all of us at this point,” Ferrer said.

“You don’t want to be the person who brings COVID to the party.”

Anousha Sakoui, a Times contributor, contributed to this report. Coronavirus cases jump at L.A. County workplaces

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