A surge in coronavirus infections has spawned an increase in workplace case clusters in Los Angeles County, prompting health officials to recommend additional measures to curb transmission, including reducing overcrowding and, in the event of a suspected epidemic, by expanding remote working.
“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 general trends in the region.
“Our case numbers, they remain quite high,” Ferrer said. And she expressed concern about the growing number of even more contagious Omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5, at a time when more people have let their guard down and thrown off their masks.
Health officials have tracked a “fairly steady increase in clusters of reported workplace cases” since April, including 301 in the past week, up from 251 the previous week, according to Ferrer. That’s a 20% increase between those two weeks, worse than the previous 12% week-over-week increase.
A cluster means that at least three cases of coronavirus have been documented on a construction site during a 14-day period.
Under the early warning framework established by the county, officials consider this number of clusters to be at a high level of concern. The number of outbreaks on construction sites in a single week is at its highest level since early March.
There are a number of factors likely fueling the increase, Ferrer told reporters Thursday. These include fewer staff and customers wearing masks, more meetings and events being held indoors onsite, and some employees coming to work even though they have symptoms of COVID-19.
“All workplaces should implement reasonable safety precautions at this stage, including asking everyone to screen for symptoms before coming to work and staying home if they have symptoms, wearing masks when indoors and to avoid crowding in common areas such as break rooms and cafeterias,” Ferrer said.
LA County already strongly recommends indoor masking in public spaces, but Ferrer said worksites with three or more coronavirus cases over a two-week period “must implement indoor masking for the entire group of exposed workers. And they must maintain an indoor masking policy until at least 14 days after the last case in the workplace.
Ferrer said the masking rule for workplace outbreaks is both a county requirement and the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, also known as Cal/OSHA. Workplaces must notify the LA County Public Health Department within 48 hours of becoming aware of a cluster of three coronavirus cases over a 14-day period; they can do this by calling (888) 397-3993 or by filing a report online.
At sites with potential outbreaks, county officials are also recommending employers consider implementing remote work, when possible, especially for workers at high risk of severe COVID-19 illness.
“In workplaces where everyone is in their own office and the doors are closed and people don’t mix much, it is much easier to reduce the risk of transmission. But that’s not what happens at most work sites,” Ferrer said.
And “in places where there’s a lot of close contact by the nature of the job, layering as much protection as possible just makes a lot of sense when the transmission has climbed that high,” she added.
Although there were signs earlier this month that the latest wave of coronavirus may have peaked in LA County, cases appear to be on the rise again.
Over the past week, the county has reported 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 county, up 34% over the past two weeks.
A greater share of LA County ER visits are being blamed for coronavirus-related reasons. Over the past week, 8% of ER visits were coronavirus-related; a month ago it was 5%.
“Emergency room and urgent care center providers have noted that this increase in the volume of COVID cases comes at a time when they are also seeing an unusually high number for the summer of patients with other illnesses. respiratory illnesses, including influenza and [respiratory syncytial virus]”, said Ferrer.
Hospitals are reporting staffing shortages linked to high transmission rates of coronaviruses, which infect healthcare workers, Ferrer said.
According to data released Thursday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, LA County saw 8.3 new weekly coronavirus-positive hospital admissions per 100,000 population; this is the highest rate since hospitalizations began to rise again in mid-April. A rate of 10 or higher would put LA County in what federal health officials have designated as the high community level for COVID-19.
According to current projections, the region could cross this threshold by mid-July.
If the county fell into this category for two consecutive weeks, a new mask mandate would be issued for indoor public places.
“With our rising case rates and rising hospital admission rates, we have new concerns about the impact of COVID. And it’s more likely now that we can get to that high community level this summer,” Ferrer said.
LA County’s latest rate of new coronavirus-related hospitalizations exceeds the threshold of 8 set by an agreement between the Alliance of Film and Television Producers and unions on when masking requirements should return in some settings in working in the television and film industry.
“They will resume indoor masking requirements, as well as several other safety measures,” Ferrer said.
Current trends make it all the more important to take sensible infection prevention precautions – especially with the 4th of July long weekend fast approaching. These include testing before gathering with others and staying home if you are not feeling well or have recently been exposed to COVID-19.
Health officials also generally recommend congregating outdoors. For indoor events, residents should consider wearing masks and improving ventilation by opening windows and doors.
“As long as you apply common sense protections, you greatly reduce the risk associated with these activities, and that would help us all at this point,” Ferrer said.
“You don’t want to be the person who brings COVID to the party.”
Times editor Anousha Sakoui contributed to this report.
Los Angeles Times