LA County sees rise in workplace outbreaks as infection rate creeps upward

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 03: Health worker Vanesa Marquez verifies identity of individuals in car at a drive-thru COVID-19 test site established by Councilman Herb Wesson in collaboration with Kheir Clinic at his district office on Saturday, Oct. 3,

With more businesses reopening, Los Angeles County has seen a recent rise in workplace coronavirus outbreaks, health officials said, while also reporting an uptick in the transmission rate that could translate to more cases.

As of Wednesday, the county's effective transmission rate -- the average number of other people a COVID-19 patient infects with the virus -- stood at 1.05, up from 1.0 two weeks ago.

"As a reminder, if (the rate) is greater than one, then we anticipate that the number of new cases will increase over time,'' county health services director Dr. Christina Ghaly said.

Ghaly said the number of people hospitalized due to the virus remains relatively low, at 720 as of Wednesday, well below the 2,000-plus levels seen in July. She said the increase in transmission rate could lead to an increase in hospitalizations, but the county should have more than adequate bed space
for at least the next month.

But she urged people to continue taking precautions against the virus.

"We cannot let our guard down,'' Ghaly said. "This is simply not over. We did such a remarkable job in the past and we can continue to do the same to reduce transmission within our communities and to save lives.''

Along with the uptick in the local transmission rate, the county also announced a recent rise in workplace outbreaks. An outbreak is considered three positive cases in a single location.

Public health director Barbara Ferrer said the county saw a spike in outbreaks back in July, followed by a sharp decline. But outbreaks have been on the rise in recent weeks, she said.

RELATED: Stay up to date on all coronavirus-related information

"The two-week period from Sept. 6 through the 19th saw only 23 outbreaks at these work sites, and this is really the lowest number we've seen since June,'' Ferrer said. "But in late September through early October, we saw the number of work sites begin to increase again and now we've had over 39 outbreaks being investigated in just a two-week period.

"This is a cause for concern and we'll continue to be monitoring what's happening at workplaces,'' she said.

Ferrer said businesses have generally been complying with public health protocols designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but compliance hasn't been universal. She said that between Aug. 29 and Oct. 6, the county issued a total of 131 citations to businesses for violations of health orders. The largest percentage of citations went to gyms or fitness centers, which received 51 citations, while houses of worship received 36.

Ferrer also said the county has not seen any outbreaks at schools that recently reopened to provide in-person instruction for high-need students.

She said such instruction is being provided at 837 schools in the county, for more than 17,500 students and 10,600 staffers. Thus far, no virus cases have
been reported among any of the students, and only a "handful of cases'' have
occurred among staff, she said.

Get your top stories delivered daily! Sign up for FOX 11’s Fast 5 newsletter. And, get breaking news alerts in the FOX 11 News app. Download for iOS or Android.

The county has been taking a slow approach to reopening businesses and continues to restrict large gatherings. However, following the state's decision to authorize residents to hold small private gatherings of no more than three households, the county on Thursday plans to amend its health order
to also allow such gatherings.

Ferrer warned, however, that any gathering with other households can present a risk of virus spread.

"It is recommended that if you do gather with two other households, you do so with the same households each time, creating a quasi-bubble that can
reduce the risk of spreading the virus to others,'' she said.

She noted that large gatherings remain prohibited, other than those involving a public protest or outdoor worship services, noting that "there's nothing in the state's revised guidance that changed this.''