Workplaces a major driver of COVID-19 in Sonoma County
The rate of new coronavirus cases continues to soar in Sonoma County as county residents and businesses are again living with drastic limits on their lives from a new stay-home order.
As of Saturday, about 180 people on average have tested positive for COVID-19 each day since Dec. 1, more than double the number during the same time period last month.
The numbers reinforce the trend that Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said drove her decision to order county residents stay home and avoid all but essential work and activities, new restrictions that took effect Saturday aimed at limiting the opportunities for people to encounter one another and spread the virus.
Data on where people are contracting COVID-19 show that going to work is one of the riskiest things people do during the pandemic. About 1 in 6 people diagnosed with the coronavirus were exposed to the virus at their jobs, according to transmission data provided to The Press Democrat for cases with information about where they were exposed.
The data suggests people are going to work after they have been infected and efforts to safeguard workers such as emergency paid sick leave and other financial assistance programs are falling short from keeping people home.
“We really want employers to make their employees feel and know that they’re safe when they have COVID and they have to isolate or quarantine — that they have job security,” Mase said.
The stay-home order curtails or closes major business sectors in the county, limiting restaurants to takeout or delivery, halting service at breweries and wineries and diminishing the number of people in retail stories.
The March stay-home orders that shut many businesses proved effective in slowing the spread of the disease, what epidemiologists call flattening the curve of new infections. Mase said she believed it would be highly successful again in slowing the spread of the illness as long as people abide by the rules.
But even with many restrictions reinstated, conditions for most of the so-called essential workforce will be unchanged.
Health care staff, service workers, construction crews and agricultural and field laborers were the top three categories of workers who have contracted COVID-19, although not all of these cases were linked to their workplace.
About half of the 734 health care workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 acquired the virus at their jobs, and they were the most likely category of worker to get infected at work, county data shows. Separately, county officials reported 61 patients at local health care facilities.
More than 1,300 people working in services and sales, such as restaurants, grocery stores, retail and hotels, have contracted the disease, but contact tracers found only 22% are known to have been infected at work.
Among the 598 farm laborers who have tested positive for the virus, contact tracers were able to determine about 34% were infected on the job.
There are 317 public safety employees who have tested positive for the virus, and 122 of those cases were linked to their jobs.
The county is launching some new programs to address workplace outbreaks, such as bringing in a private testing laboratory to conduct surveillance testing with larger employers, according to Mase. The county is hiring someone to serve as a liaison between the public health department and businesses.
Continuing to work
Dr. Jenny Fish, a local family medicine physician who helped found the local health care advocacy group H-PEACE, or Health Professionals for Equality and Community Empowerment, said she believes the county is failing to address the critical role employers play in limiting the spread of the virus for the whole community.
Doctors connected to her organization routinely hear from patients who say they are expected to work even with symptoms of illness or who are too afraid of the financial consequences if they call in sick, Fish said.
Her organization has been compiling stories from their patients with details about these problems to highlight for public officials where improvements need to be made to slow transmission of COVID-19.
One of those stories involves a fast food restaurant employee who confided in his doctor that he was terrified he would contract the virus when his coworker continued coming to work with obvious signs of illness. She would eventually test positive for the virus.
Another case included an older woman with chronic illnesses concerned about her safety because her son worked for a man who insisted on coming to work after testing positive, believing he could be safe by closing the office door. The son tested positive for COVID-19.