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The Disclosure Question 

Why won't counties report workplace COVID outbreaks to the public?

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Napa County doesn't collect data about coronavirus outbreaks in workplaces while nearby Sonoma County does, but won't identify them because it would compromise the county's working relationship with employers.

Alameda County won't share outbreak locations to protect privacy and to guard against what one health official called undue stigma.

Humboldt County tends toward not releasing specific information but has proactively in some cases, while offering more generalized confirmations in others, with the county health officer describing the disclosures as a "balancing act."

From meat-packing plants and construction sites to agricultural fields, coronavirus has hit and, in some cases, exploded in essential workplaces across California.

But since the state lacks a uniform policy for reporting workplace outbreaks, the job of notifying the public, particularly workers, has fallen to county public health departments. That results in statewide inconsistencies, raising questions about who exactly — employer or employee — ends up protected.

While some officials err on the side of transparency, others refuse to disclose outbreaks in order to preserve cooperation from employers who aren't legally obligated to report outbreaks.

California essential workers are left to wonder whether any of their colleagues have been sickened with the potentially deadly virus, and if so, how many? Information about the outbreaks arrives sporadically to reporters, often the result of tips from scared workers.

Differences in Reporting

In some cases, counties may have good reasons for wanting to keep quiet. Local health departments rely on employers voluntarily alerting them to positive cases, and employers might not do so if they fear it will show up in a newspaper.

When Humboldt County Health Officer Teresa Frankovich was asked at a July media briefing about reporting differences between Humboldt and neighboring Mendocino County — which more regularly puts out alerts on COVID-19 cases related to workplaces — she said it's a "balancing act."

"When we have businesses where there is a concern about public intersection, that is important for people to know about. That is an instance that we report, and we have done that," she said. "If it is incidental to a business, and ... it's simply not a public exposure issue, then I would argue that it's not particularly productive to do so.

"It doesn't improve your safety as a consumer and it may be a disincentive for people to come forward, or for employers to even want to identify people who are ill in their business," Frankovich continued. "I think it keeps us safer for people to feel like we are being judicious about whether we are, you know, putting them out there for something that may be beyond their control and is not really important to public safety."

The COVID-19 Joint Information Center did put out information in May about the outbreak at Alder Bay Assisted Living in Eureka, which resulted in the county's only four deaths from the virus to date.

The same month, the JIC also put out a health alert about potential expose to customers who'd been to the Aztec Grill and Chevron Station in McKinleyville on certain dates.

And when news of an employee at the Eureka Target came to the attention of local media in April, Public Health did confirm someone who'd tested positive was working at the store.

In other cases, such as the office worker at Wildberries Marketplace who tested positive, the notification has come from the business itself.

While some counties never put out business-specific information and others like Humboldt weigh the risk versus reward, the Oregon Health Authority began publishing all workplace outbreaks online in May after facing criticism for not alerting the public to an outbreak at a fruit company.

Director Patrick Allen said, "OHA believes a consistent, transparent statewide approach to reporting COVID-19 cases in workplaces will give Oregonians more information to help people avoid the risks of COVID-19 infections."

Proposals to improve transparency

Pending legislation in California could bring a more uniform approach. Authored by Democrat Assemblymember Eloise Gómez Reyes of San Bernardino, the bill would require employers to notify their workers of all potential exposures from confirmed cases at the worksite, and the county health department as soon as there are three cases — or face a $10,000 penalty. If signed by the governor, it would go into effect Jan. 1.

A provision that would have required the state to identify workplace outbreaks online was watered down during negotiations last month.

To Tania Pacheco-Werner, a sociologist at California State University Fresno, counties' silence on workplace outbreaks is "one of the reasons why this got so out of control" and a "missed opportunity."

"County health officers will say 'avoid parties.' But they're not giving us the data of where they're getting infected," said Pacheco-Werner. "So people don't have any way to conceptualize what the actual impact of going to grandma's house is."

Asked what the statewide standard should be for reporting outbreaks, Gov. Gavin Newsom pointed to Gómez Reyes bill: "We're working with legislative leaders to tackle just that."

Employer confidentiality over public notice

Several counties, like Alameda, cited privacy concerns. Fresno will release information about outbreaks only if there's a larger risk to workplace staff or customers.

It makes sense for counties to decide how much information they want to share with the public, according to George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California at San Francisco, who previously served as California's state health officer and state epidemiologist.

"There's a lot of confidentiality issues that go with workplace outbreaks of any kind," he said.

Asked if he thought it was dangerous for the public not to know where workplace outbreaks are happening, Rutherford compared the virus to a sexually transmitted disease: "If you have syphilis, would it be dangerous for the public not to know you have syphilis?"

Assemblymember Robert Rivas, a Democrat from Salinas, disagreed. He said that counties' wanting to maintain cooperation with employers or protect their privacy are "not valid reasons" for concealing outbreaks from the public.

"We're all in this together," Rivas said.

Counties struggle to detect outbreaks

The state simply advises employers to notify their local health agency of suspected outbreaks but employers are required to notify Cal/OSHA, the state agency that regulates workplace conditions, about any work-related COVID-19 cases that result in severe illness, hospitalization or death.

However, Cal/OSHA does not post information about its investigations online, though the agency was willing to confirm whether it had investigated or was actively investigating COVID deaths associated with employers on a list that reporters provided.

That's one reason why Rivas penned a bill, part of a legislative package aimed at protecting farmworkers, that would require Cal/OSHA to routinely publicize findings from investigations into agricultural employers' COVID responses.

"If our goal is to keep California moving forward and minimize the negative impact of COVID-19, then this type of reporting is absolutely necessary," Rivas said.

Editor's note: North Coast Journal staff writer Kimberly Wear contributed to this report, which has been edited for length.

This article is part of the California Divide project, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California. Kate Cimini contributed reporting.

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