LA County health officer: Workplaces fueling spread of coronavirus

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As the coronavirus continues its spread throughout the Southland, Los Angeles County's top health officer warned Thursday that workplaces are a major source of transmission, and employers have a duty to adhere to health restrictions to protect employees.

County health officer Dr. Muntu Davis said inspectors over the past few months have been responding to 2,000 to 3,000 complaints a week about potential health protocol violations at workplaces.

Dozens of workplace outbreaks are under investigation, the largest of which continues to be at the Los Angeles Apparel garment-manufacturing facilities in South Los Angeles, Davis said. Health officials reported last week that 300 employees at the plant had tested positive for the coronavirus, and four people have died.

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Davis said Thursday the number of confirmed cases at the facility has risen to 375 among the company's 2,290 employees.

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"The manufacturer is still closed pending some additional activities to bring them into compliance and for us to finish investigating any potential contacts that may still need to be under quarantine at that location," he said.

Davis said workplace settings have seen the sharpest recent increase in cases. Those most susceptible to outbreaks are food-processing companies and distribution facilities, including meat-packing plants, manufacturers, garment factories and wholesale warehouses, he said.

"These workplaces have several things in common," he said. "They're large employers with large numbers of low-wage workers, and they have workers who are spending long shifts together in close proximity and in indoor spaces."

Those situations have contributed to the data showing that "Black and Latino residents and people in high-poverty areas are bearing the brunt of this virus."

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He also said many employers are still falling short of meeting operating protocols, saying the county is "not seeing compliance that we need with the public health director directives being in place to keep people's health and livelihood safe."

"Businesses have a corporate, moral and social responsibility to their employees to provide a safe work environment," he said. "They must adhere to all the health officer directives. People's health, lives and livelihoods are at stake."

Davis noted that while the county is receiving and responding to thousands of workplace complaints a week, some workers may be reluctant to come forward due to fear of retaliation from their employers. He said the county has a hotline workers can call to safely report possible violations, at 800-700-9995.

In general, employers voluntarily come into compliance once they are visited by inspectors, Davis said, and it is very rare for the county to resort to large fines or possible criminal prosecution.

Davis' comments came a day after the county announced a 65% expansion of its testing capacity, focused solely on under-served communities. The county's medical services director, Dr. Christina Ghaly, said new sites were being established in Montebello, South Gate, Azusa, Panorama City, Compton and Downey-Norwalk. She said existing sites were being expanded in Bellflower, Pomona, El Monte and East Los Angeles.

As of Wednesday, there were 2,193 people hospitalized in the county due to the virus, not including Long Beach and Pasadena, which have their own health departments. That number is the highest it has been since the pandemic began.

The number of deaths due to the coronavirus in the county stood at 3,937 as of Wednesday, while the number of cases was at 143,207. The average daily number of confirmed cases in the county has doubled over the past two months, going from 1,452 in early June to 2,859 now, public health director Barbara Ferrer said.

More than 1.4 million people have been tested for the virus during the pandemic, with the overall rate of positive tests at 9% as of Wednesday. The rolling average over the past seven days was slightly higher, at 9.8%.

Ferrer again noted that younger residents between 18 and 40 continue to represent a larger chunk of people testing positive for the virus and taking up hospital space -- a trend that began with Memorial Day weekend.

"Younger people between the ages of 18 and 40 are also being hospitalized at a significantly higher rate than we've seen before, and it continues to increase. It's almost at 30% now," Ferrer said.

Health officials have been urgently calling for residents to return to stricter adherence to infection-control measures, including social- distancing, avoiding gatherings with people outside their own households and wearing face coverings when in public.

They declined to identify any exact trigger points that might lead to a return to the original "Safer At Home" order that called on residents to remain at home as much as possible, leaving only for essential errands, and that shuttered most businesses.

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"If we do a really good job of implementing all of the tools we have at hand, we can get back to slowing the spread, and that makes it a lot less likely we will return to Safer At Home," Ferrer said Wednesday.

On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom renewed business restrictions in 30 California counties, including Los Angeles. His order again forced the closure of indoor gyms, hair salons, nail salons, places of worship, massage businesses and tattoo parlors. Newsom also ordered a statewide closure of all bars and forced restaurants throughout California to cease indoor service.

On Tuesday, L.A. County reported a single-day record of 4,244 newly confirmed coronavirus cases and 73 deaths -- just three short of the record set back in May.