Coronavirus cases soar at L.A. County workplaces

Jobs across Los Angeles County are being hit hard by the latest wave of coronavirus, with the number of reported clusters of cases nearly quadrupling since early May.

The sharp surge is the latest wrinkle for faltering efforts by companies trying to get employees back on what resembles a pre-pandemic schedule.

Clusters of infection can be seen among sectors: airports, food processing companies, aerospace, and Hollywood film and television productions. This is due to an increase in hospitalizations and deaths in LA County due to the prevalence of ultra-infectious subvariants.

Patterns of office attendance and occupancy have changed over the past two years in line with the COVID-19 threat level, real estate industry observers report. When the surges subside, employers will be more likely to sign new space commitments with landlords and urge workers to come into the office.

Given the scale of case clusters in the workplace, county health officials are recommending employers take steps to reduce overcrowding and expand remote work opportunities if an outbreak is suspected.

Across the county, 371 workplaces reported clusters of coronavirus cases in the week through Tuesday. At the beginning of May there were 100.

A cluster is defined as three or more coronavirus cases within 14 days. Workplaces are required to report clusters to the LA County Department of Public Health. A cluster does not necessarily mean that the transmission occurred at the workplace; Employees could have been infected elsewhere.

LA County officials say when more than 300 jobs report clusters in a week, it’s a matter of grave concern.

The “clusters and outbreaks are disruptive and dangerous, especially as many more outbreaks are now affecting 20 or more workers,” LA County public health director Barbara Ferrer said this week. “Staff are suddenly having to take time off to isolate and recover, causing staff shortages and disruption to normal operations. Workplace outbreaks pose a worrying risk to vulnerable employees and often contribute to additional spread of the virus in the homes and communities where our employees live.”

Rising and waning waves of COVID-19 have thwarted efforts by many employers to get workers back into the office after their buildings were mostly emptied early in the pandemic. The average office population has not yet reached half of its pre-pandemic level, and any gains made are declining as new variants gain strength.

According to Kastle Systems, which provides key card entry systems used by many businesses and tracks worker patterns, the nationwide average office population hit a low of 14.6% in mid-April 2020. Last week it was 39.6%. from nearly 44% at the end of June, as the pandemic picked up again and workers observed the July 4 holiday.

Los Angeles was slightly below the national average at 38.5%, also reflecting a recent decline. White-collar employers in San Francisco appear to be among the most cautious in the country, with the office population falling to 30% from nearly 35% at the end of June.

In LA County, outbreaks are occurring in workplaces with the largest number of employees, including airports. The Transportation Security Administration at Los Angeles International Airport has reported 137 cases among employees. American Airlines at LAX saw 94 cases among its staff; Southwest Airlines had 38 cases at Hollywood Burbank Airport and 28 at their facility at Terminal 1 at LAX.

Food production and retail companies are also affected. These include Smithfield Foods in Vernon, which processes hogs, with 54 cases; Costco in Burbank, at 38; Whole Foods Market in Glendale, at 30; and Lee Kum Kee in Industry, who makes Asian sauces, at 28.

The Apple Store in Manhattan Beach has 27 cases; Ikea in Burbank has 21.

Aerospace companies reported a number of clusters, including Raytheon in El Segundo with 34 cases; Lisi Aerospace in Torrance, at 31; and the Aerospace Corp. in El Segundo, with 26.

Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank reported 49 cases; The cluster came a month after the studio began asking employees to return to the office for at least three days a week.

Camp JCA Shalom of Sylmar has 29 employee cases and 45 non-employee cases. Other workplaces with 30 or more cases include Starr Surgical of Monrovia, Newegg of Industry, Southland Box Co. of Vernon, Progressive Gaming of Hawaiian Gardens, and the VCA Animal Specialty & Emergency Center on Los Angeles’ west side.

The number of outbreaks in nursing homes is also of great concern to county health officials.

Investigations were carried out in 41 care homes in the past week, five times more than in early May. Many involve 15 or more cases at a single facility, officials said.

“A current worrying finding is that we are now seeing an increased percentage of our total deaths related to outbreaks in skilled care facilities,” Ferrer said. “In May, about 5% of all deaths occurred among nursing home residents. Unfortunately, that number jumped to 12% in June.”

A larger proportion of COVID-19 deaths are now occurring in people aged 80 and over. In May, this age group accounted for 44% of deaths; a month later it was 58%.

“Swelling cases in the community create increased risk for the most vulnerable, who can least afford to get infected,” Ferrer said. “We are now seeing the highest number of new outbreaks in skilled care facilities since January this year.”

Overall, LA County is recording an average of about 100 COVID-19 deaths per week, double the number a month ago. During the peak of the Omicron surge last winter, the county was seeing more than 500 deaths a week.

The transmission remains increased. LA County is reporting an average of 6,800 coronavirus cases per day — the most since February and a 35% increase from last week. The latest rate equates to 469 weekly cases per 100,000 population; a rate of 100 or more is considered high.

The daily fall rate is nowhere near that seen during the Omicron rise, which peaked at 42,000, but has surpassed the peak of last summer’s delta rise, which was 3,500.

However, the official case list is a gross undercount given the wide availability of home testing, the results of which are not reliably reported. Among the reported test results, LA County is reporting a 17% positivity rate — more than double the rate since this time last month.

“Many healthcare providers in the community tell us they see a test positivity rate closer to 40% in their patients who come for treatment,” Ferrer said.

As of Thursday, there were about 1,223 people with coronavirus infections in LA County hospitals, double the number a month earlier and the most since February.

The rate of coronavirus-positive hospitalizations increased by 25% in a single week. On Thursday, the Department of Health said LA County reported 10.5 weekly coronavirus positive admissions, up from 8.4 the previous week.

Thursday marked the first time since February that weekly hospitalizations surpassed 10, bringing the county to the high COVID-19 community level as defined by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 42% of LA County’s coronavirus-positive patients are being treated for COVID-19 disease; the rest are hospitalized for other reasons. Nonetheless, patients infected with the coronavirus pose a potential burden on the healthcare system as more resources are needed to isolate them.

“Although many of the hospitalized patients are not there because of COVID-related illness, the rising numbers suggest that COVID remains a very dangerous virus for a significant number of people,” Ferrer said.

Additionally, the percentage of weekly emergency department visits related to coronavirus-related issues has doubled from 5% in mid-May to 10% now.

“This signals that COVID is putting increasing pressure on our medical systems as virus transmission increases and there are many more infected people who are sick enough to seek emergency medical care,” Ferrer said.

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

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