New California Data Shows COVID Spreading in the Workplace


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Source: 48 Hills

The California Department of Public Health, at long last, has posted data on its website showing COVID outbreaks in California by “industry”—that is, in the workplace.

This data provides substantial evidence that a significant amount of the spread of the coronavirus has been and is taking place where people work—among workers, customers, and clients alike. Public discourse has focused on family and social gatherings as the chief cause of the “community” spread of virus. This new data should serve as an important adjustment to that narrative.

This new data is all the more significant for Californians, now that Governor Gavin Newsom, fighting for his political life in the face of a Big Business recall, is rapidly reopening up many workplaces including, somewhat incredibly, outdoor and even indoor sports stadiums that will shortly be full of screaming fans.

New data

CDPH was mandated by Assembly Bill 685, passed and signed by the governor last September, “to track the number and frequency of COVID outbreaks and… cases by industry… [and] make [this information] available on its internet website…”

This mandate was effective January 1, but it took the CDPH almost three months to post any data, despite repeated questions from the press, including me. Was the delay the result of political pressure from the Governor’s Office? I repeatedly asked the Guv’s Office for an explanation of the delay, and the answer was the proverbial sound of silence.

The data that CDPH put up on its website documents an astounding 4,311 outbreaks in workplaces in just the two months from January 1 to March 1, 2021. Outbreaks are generally defined as at least three probable or confirmed COVID cases within 14 days. The CDPH summarizes these outbreaks this way:

  • Residential care facilities…………       21.7%
  • Restaurants…………………………… 7.0%
  • Skilled nursing facilities…………..      4.2%
  • Hospitals……………………………… 3.9%
  • Grocery stores………………………..    3.5%
  • Construction…………………………..   3.5%

That nearly 26 percent of these outbreaks took place in residential care and skilled nursing facilities, as horrifying as it is for both the residents and the workers in those facilities, should come as no surprise.

But it is truly shocking to see that outbreaks in restaurants occurred at nearly double the rate as outbreaks in hospitals. In the words of Mark Rabine of Mission Local, “The virus loves restaurants.” This should give pause both to potential diners eager to enjoy a night out on the town (for indoor dining) and to restaurant workers whose bosses want them to get back to work.

Construction workers suffered 3.5 percent of these outbreaks, despite the fact that much of their work takes place outdoors, and is considered relatively safe by many. Indeed, outbreaks in construction work are as common as outbreaks in grocery stores, where workers and customers interact with each other indoors and in large numbers.

The data behind the data

But with a little deeper digging, the you can find the raw data that CDPH aggregated to come up with these numbers. This data behind the data documents outbreaks by “sector,” and provides a much more detailed list than the six sectors highlighted by CDPH. Here is where some important revelations are buried, and things get interesting.

I list here these sectors in the order of outbreaks recorded:

  • Health Care & Social Assistance…1,628 (37.8%)
  • Retail Trade……………………………  541 (12.5%)
  • Manufacturing………………………… 500 (11.6%)
  • Accommodation & Food Service 340  (7.9%)
  • Transportation & Warehousing…  201 (4.7%)
  • Public Administration…………………  177 (4.1%)
  • Educational Services……………………150 (3.5%)
  • Construction…………………………… 149 (3.5%)
  • Other Services, except Public Administration…………………………  97  (2.3%)
  • Professional, Scientific & Technical Services………………………….. 84  (1.9%)
  • Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing, and Hunting………………….…………….78        (1.8%)
  • Administrative & support & waste mgt.   76  (1.8%)
  • Wholesale Trade…………………………77 (1.8%)
  • Finance & Insurance…………………… 60  (1.4%)
  • Real Estate & Rental & Leasing…………47 (1.1%)
  • Arts, Entertainment & Recreation………  32 (0.7%)
  • Utilities…………………………………   31 (0.7%)
  • Information………………………………15 (0.3%)
  • Insufficient information………………… 12 (0.3%)    
  • Mining, Quarrying, & Oil & Gas Extraction…………….…………….……. 8  (0.2%)
  • Management of companies & enterprises………………………………… 8 (0.2%)

The “Health Care and Social Assistance” workplace outbreaks jump out, given that they are afflicted with 37.8 percent of the outbreaks—1,628 outbreaks to be exact.

Each of the industry sectors listed above has a number of sub-categories. For example, “Health Care & Social Assistance” includes:

  • Residential care facilities  (934 outbreaks)
  • Skilled nursing facilities  (180 outbreaks)
  • Hospitals  (166 outbreaks)
  • Child day-care services  (100 outbreaks)
  • Outpatient care centers  (77 outbreaks)
  • Community services, including homeless shelters  (69 outbreaks)
  • Individual & family services  (41 outbreaks)
  • Offices of doctors, dentists, optometrists & other health care professionals  (28 outbreaks)
  • Other health care services  (21 outbreaks)
  • Home health care services  (11 outbreaks)
  • Vocational rehabilitation services  (1 outbreak)

Somehow, in CDPH’s rendition of things, the 100 outbreaks in child day care services got lost. Later in this list you find “Educational Services.” That includes 119 outbreaks in elementary and secondary schools. This is data that was rendered nearly invisible by CDPH, but which the community should be discussing, given the headlong rush right now to reopen schools.

The incidence of outbreaks in outpatient health care services—at clinics, offices and in home health – are nothing to sneeze at either, although they also did not make it into the CDPH summary.

And what of CPDH’s highlighted category of “grocery stores,” at 3.9 percent of the outbreaks? The fact is that grocery stores are just a sub-category of retail trade  – everything from department stores to gas stations – which clocks in with a whopping 541 outbreaks, 12.5 percent of the total.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that “manufacturing,” which is totally absent from the CDPH summary, has the third largest number of outbreaks—500 in total. Those who think we are living in some kind of “post-industrial” economy should take a hard look at the 70 different categories of manufacturing industries in the data, not one of which is without COVID outbreaks.

A collection of food and beverage processing categories has the largest number of manufacturing outbreaks, a total of 107. Next in line is “medical equipment and supplies manufacturing,” with 55 outbreaks.

“Accommodation & Food Services” is where 302 outbreaks in “restaurants and other food services” show up. This is also where 38 outbreaks in “traveler accommodation” show up. I presume this means hotels and motels. You pay your money and take your chances, travelers.

“Transportation and Warehousing” includes 91 outbreaks in “warehousing and storage,” not a happy thought for Amazon workers and the like. It also includes 39 outbreaks in “bus service and urban transit,” and 39 outbreaks among “couriers and messengers.” These are all categories that did not make it into the CDPH summary.

The meaning of the data

I fear I will wear out the reader if I go on, if I haven’t worn you out already. You can look at the data yourself. Be warned, however. There is no part of the work world that remains untouched, and none of it is reassuring about the supposed “light at the end of the tunnel.”

But I do want to point out that “management of companies & enterprises” has the lowest number of outbreaks of any category, a mere 0.2 percent. Perhaps this is part of the reason that the bosses, facing such a small threat of infection themselves, are so eager to reopen and pull in some money, at the expense of the health and safety of their workers and customers.

Some caveats here. According to CDPH, “it is possible that additional outbreaks occurred during this time [January and February 2021] and have not been reported to CDPH.” Or maybe never will be reported.

For example, the 78 outbreaks reported in agricultural production, while sickening, seems much lower than what one would expect among the heavily exploited, immigrant, and largely Latinx population.

And this:

“[I]n most settings, outbreak and case counts are likely underestimates. For most cases, it is not possible to identify the source of exposure, as many cases have multiple possible exposures.”

Here is where that “community spread” mantra comes in again. Did you get the virus at work, at your kid’s child-care center, or at Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving dinner? We have been encouraged to blame Uncle Sam, not the boss.

CDPH does point out, correctly, that “cases may have occurred among workers, other community members [customers for example] who visited the setting, or both. Accordingly, these data do not distinguish between outbreaks involving only workers, outbreaks involving only residents or patrons, or outbreaks involving both.”

Remember that these are just the numbers from two months, January and February. The year 2020 is behind us, thankfully, but the rest of 2021 is before us. It will be a race between vaccines, variants, and reopening.

I suspect that the curious and concerned reader would like to know which specific workplaces have had outbreaks. What about your particular workplace? AB 685 says your own boss is supposed to tell you about an outbreak, and good luck with that.

But what about your neighbor’s workplace? Or the grocery store you shop at? Or the restaurant you ate at last night? Sorry, nothing in state or federal law requires such information to be shared with you.

A few county public health departments make this information public, but most do not. The place I live, San Francisco, does not, despite its reputation as a leader in the fight against COVID.

A proposed new state law, AB 654, would mandate public reporting on specific workplace outbreaks. AB 654 was introduced in February. At last report it was going nowhere.

Finally, CDPH notes that some workplaces have been closed. I bet you knew that. Is there going to be a new category for sports stadiums, now that they are opening up per the Guv’s directions? We shall see.

Be well. Be safe. Stay strong. Information is power.

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