Orange County officials don’t publicly list coronavirus outbreaks at workplaces, in contrast with neighboring Los Angeles County, with OC’s public health director saying it would be unfair to businesses and disincentivize them from working with public health officials.
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As local restaurants and other workplaces face outbreaks, Orange County officials have faced questions about why they don’t publicly disclose where outbreaks have occurred.
LA County publishes an online list of workplaces that have had clusters of coronavirus cases among staff, along with how many of their staff have tested positive. Many of the largest clusters have been at industrial settings like clothing manufacturers and meatpacking plants, as well as grocery stories and police stations.
This week, OC officials reiterated they have no current plans to publish such a list, citing concerns about fairness and cooperation.
“Because of the delay, it…truly isn’t fair to list [a business], because by the time we find out there is somebody who tested positive, the time has already passed. It doesn’t even make any sense to list them, or close them,” said Dr. Clayton Chau, director of the Orange County Health Care Agency and the county’s interim health officer, speaking at Tuesday’s meeting of the county Board of Supervisors.
“And then if you list them, you are discouraging business to come and work with us, right? Because who wants to be listed as, ‘I have an outbreak in my business’? So it’s a disincentive for them to work with us. We really want them to contact us, so we can help them to make sure that we mitigate any issue that they have.”
Asked about Chau’s concerns, LA County health officials said they believe disclosing all workplace outbreaks is the right thing to do and that they haven’t seen it get in the way of businesses working with them.
“We think it is appropriate to list all sites with outbreaks and haven’t noticed that this impedes cooperation,” Los Angeles County Department of Public Health officials said in a statement Thursday.
The largest number of workplace outbreaks in OC have been at restaurants, which saw a large increase after indoor dining opened and then a decrease after indoor dining was shut down again starting in early July, public health officials said Wednesday in response to questions from Voice of OC.
“We’ve seen outbreaks associated with many different kinds of work sites, but the largest number have been seen in restaurants. Restaurant clusters increased dramatically in number coincident with opening of in-room dining in the county, we’ve seen a decrease in these reports since in-room dining was discontinued,” said Dr. Matthew Zahn, medical director of the Health Care Agency’s communicable disease control division.
“Our Environmental Health Division reaches out to every restaurant that has one or more cases reported in staff, and our Communicable Disease Control Division reaches out to educate every work site where a staff person is identified to have disease. We assist them with infection control guidance. We also help sites identify close contacts of cases that need to be excluded from work, and assess the need for broader staff testing.”
Orange County public health officials said this week they’re having a tough time stopping coronavirus outbreaks because of a lag in testing results turnaround, coupled with not enough contact tracers in the county. A shortage of testing leading to wait times that can be a week or more in some cases to get tested, and another several days before results come back.
As of Wednesday, LA County listed 142 non-residential workplaces that have had a total of 1,954 staff members test positive for coronavirus cases and another 240 staff who have symptoms but have not yet gotten test results confirming if they’re infected.
LA County’s list includes 205 confirmed infections among staff at one meat processing plant, and over 150 confirmed infections among staff at a clothing manufacturer where four employees have died from coronavirus. The list also shows dozens of infections at individual sheriff and police stations.
“During the first three months of the pandemic, 27 outbreaks were reported in the region. More community outbreaks began to be confirmed as the economy reopened. Thirty-four outbreaks were reported in June, and 23 during the first week of July,” San Diego County wrote in a news release last week.
“The great majority of community outbreaks have been reported in restaurants with bars.”
“Outbreaks of COVID-19 in community settings continue to pop up throughout the region, prompting County health officials to remind San Diegans to take precautions to slow the spread of the virus,” the news release added.
“Five new community outbreaks were confirmed July 7, bringing the seven-day total to 24, the highest number over the seven-day period. The new outbreaks represent 137 cases, but since the outbreaks are still active, the figure might increase.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].