The public sector workers who serve Orange County’s 3.2 million residents have been hit by another wave of COVID infections amidst this summer’s case surge.
It comes after somewhat of a lull in COVID outbreaks following last winter’s wave that threatened community services.
As in similar surges, the hardest-hit workers over the last three months tend to interact with residents face-to-face – entire Social Services Agency facilities, county-staffed landfills, and multiple suites and floors of Sheriff and District Attorney buildings.
During a case surge in January, County of Orange officials confirmed nearly 40 COVID-19 outbreaks – 10 of them “major” – across its administrative offices, which residents depend on for things like waste and recycling, official records, and welfare programs.
But then such outbreaks tapered off, according to county case tracking data required by the state’s worker safety agency.
According to the CalOSHA data, just one outbreak was confirmed in February, striking an emergency operations center in Silverado Canyon.
A mere handful appeared in April.
Yet none of them were major, defined by CalOSHA as COVID-19 cases affecting 20 or more employees within 30 days.
Things seemed to quiet down.
Then May came: 25 confirmed outbreaks, including a major one affecting an entire social worker building in Santa Ana.
In June, the number of outbreaks climbed to 27.
This month, there have been at least 15 confirmed outbreaks, again across varying county offices.
There were three or more confirmed cases at OC Community Services’ maintenance yard in Fountain Valley, for example.
One outbreak hit the OC Public Works warehouse in Orange.
The last available outbreak record was from July 15, on the second floor of the Auditor-Controller’s office in Santa Ana.
While remote-work abilities were once a hard-fought battle for local union leaders, county administrative leaders this time around are encouraging as much remote work as possible, where feasible.
It’s a point of appreciation for county employees’ advocates, who at one point protested what they described as “petri dish” working conditions for Social Services Agency clerks, standing with signs outside the agency’s office in Orange.
While cases have increased over the last two months, there appears to be no talk of a mask mandate for residents visiting public counters or workers who aren’t telecommuting.
[Read: Latest COVID Wave Grips Orange County, Hospitalizations Stay Low For Now]
“The County has not instituted a County-wide mask mandate for its employees,” said county spokesperson Molly Nichelson, in a July 21 email.
Regarding public counters, she wrote in a later Monday email, “Members of the public are not required to wear masks when entering County buildings.”
According to a list of individual county worker COVID cases, county officials confirmed more than 630 for July through last Tuesday.
However, many exposure locations were listed outside the office, at the employees’ homes.
Outbreaks, on the other hand, are defined by CalOSHA as three or more confirmed cases in the workplace over 14 days.
A major outbreak is defined as one affecting 10 or more people over 30 days.
Charles Barfield, head of the Orange County Employees Association, predicts up to 1,000 positive cases among county workers this month. The union represents roughly 18,000 employees at the County of Orange.
“That’s short of the massive number of cases earlier this year, but this recent trend reversal is nonetheless very alarming,” wrote Barfield in a written statement on July 20, when contacted by Voice of OC about the outbreaks.
As of July 22, the virus had 315 people hospitalized countywide.
County officials are reporting a testing positivity rate of nearly 20%.
The virus has killed more than 7,000 people since the pandemic’s start, according to numbers tracked by the county.
In January, the winter surge brought about concerns the virus had threatened public services.
And yet, workers at places like the Social Services Agency said county officials, at the time, had not properly accommodated workplace safety concerns.
Voice of OC reported on the same situation in 2020 – the year the pandemic began.
[Read: Orange County Public Workers Confront Coronavirus Uncertainty Amidst Outbreaks]
And where Barfield’s workplace safety demands were urgent then, publicly noting, “Clearly the County has again been caught unprepared to handle the rapid increase in positive cases,” – he’s publicly expressing more optimism this time.
Barfield pointed out a recent July 20 directive to workers by county CEO Frank Kim’s office, which he shared with Voice of OC.
“In light of the rise in COVID numbers, the CEO’s Office will be extending the current recommendation to allow for increased telecommuting to continue through Labor Day. Essentially, we are asking that where possible in your departments, please encourage staff to telecommute,” reads the emailed notice from Deputy County CEO Lilly Simmering.
Barfield, in his written response to questions, called the county directive “proactive” and “worker friendly.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.
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