Coronavirus cases soar in LA County workplaces

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Los Angeles County workplaces are being hit hard by the latest wave of coronavirus, with the number of reported case clusters nearly quadrupling since early May.

The sharp increase is the latest wrinkle for shutdown efforts by companies looking to bring employees back on something resembling a pre-pandemic schedule.

Among the areas to see clusters of infection: airports, food processing companies, aerospace and Hollywood film and television production. This comes as hospitalizations and deaths in LA County increase due to the spread of ultra-infectious subvariants.

Office footfall and rental patterns have changed over the past two years based on the COVID-19 threat level, real estate industry watchers report. When surges abate, employers are more likely to sign new space pledges with landlords and entice workers to come into the office.

Given the extent of clusters of cases in the workplace, county health officials are recommending that employers take steps to reduce overcrowding and, if an outbreak is suspected, expand options for remote work.

Countywide, 371 workplaces reported clusters of coronavirus cases in the week through Tuesday. By early May, the number was 100.

A cluster is defined as three or more coronavirus cases over a 14-day period. Workplaces are required to report clusters to the LA County Department of Public Health. A cluster does not necessarily mean that the transmission occurred in the workplace; employees may have been infected elsewhere.

LA County officials say if there are more than 300 workplaces reporting clusters in a week, that’s very concerning.

“Clusters and outbreaks are disruptive and dangerous, especially since many other outbreaks now involve 20 or more workers,” LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said this week. “Staff are having to take time off to self-isolate and recuperate, resulting in staff shortages and disruptions to normal operations. Workplace outbreaks create a disturbing risk to vulnerable employees, and they often contribute to further spread of the virus in the households and communities where our workers live.

Waning and waning outbreaks of COVID-19 have hampered the efforts of many employers to get workers back into the office on a regular basis after their buildings were mostly empty at the start of the pandemic. The average office population hasn’t yet reached half of what it was before the pandemic, and any gains made roll back each time new variants gain strength.

According to Kastle Systems, which provides key card entry systems used by many businesses and tracks employee swiping patterns, the national average office population hit a low of 14.6% in mid-April 2020. Last week it was 39.6%, down from nearly 44% at the end of June, as the pandemic surged again and workers observed the July 4 holiday.

Los Angeles was slightly below the national average at 38.5%, also reflecting a recent decline. White-collar employers in San Francisco appear to be among the most cautious in the country, with the office population falling to 30% from nearly 35% at the end of June.

In LA County, outbreaks are occurring at work sites with the highest number of employees, including airports. At the Transportation Security Administration at Los Angeles International Airport, 137 cases have been reported among employees. American Airlines at LAX has seen 94 cases among its workforce; Southwest Airlines had 38 cases at Hollywood Burbank Airport and 28 at its Terminal 1 at LAX.

Businesses associated with food production and retail are also affected. They include Smithfield Foods in Vernon, which processes pigs, with 54 cases; Costco in Burbank, with 38; Whole Foods Market in Glendale, with 30; and Lee Kum Kee in the industry, which produces Asian sauces, with 28.

The Apple Store in Manhattan Beach has 27 checkouts; Ikea in Burbank has 21.

Aerospace companies reported a number of clusters, including Raytheon in El Segundo, with 34 cases; Lisi Aerospace in Torrance, with 31; and Aerospace Corp. in El Segundo, with 26.

Warner Bros. Studios. in Burbank have reported 49 cases; the cluster occurred a month after the studio began asking employees to return to the office at least three days a week.

The JCA Shalom camp in Sylmar has 29 staff cases and 45 non-staff cases. Other workplaces with 30 or more cases include Starr Surgical in Monrovia, Newegg of Industry, Southland Box Co. in Vernon, Progressive Gaming of Hawaiian Gardens and VCA Animal Specialty & Emergency Center in the Westside of Los Angeles.

The number of outbreaks occurring in nursing homes is also of serious concern to county health officials.

Investigations were underway in 41 retirement homes last week, five times more than at the start of May. Many involve 15 or more cases at a single facility, officials said.

“A disturbing recent finding is that we are now seeing an increased percentage of our overall deaths associated with outbreaks in skilled nursing facilities,” Ferrer said. “In May, about 5% of all deaths occurred among residents of nursing homes. Unfortunately, that number dropped to 12% in June.

A greater proportion of COVID-19-related deaths now occur in people aged 80 and over. In May, this age group accounted for 44% of deaths; a month later it was 58%.

“The surge in cases in the community creates an increased risk for the most vulnerable, who can least afford to be infected,” Ferrer said. “We are now seeing the highest number of new outbreaks in skilled nursing facilities since January this year.”

Overall, LA County is averaging about 100 COVID-19 deaths per week, double the rate from a month ago. At the height of Omicron’s surge last winter, the county recorded more than 500 deaths per week.

Transmission remains high. LA County is reporting an average of 6,800 coronavirus cases per day – the most since February and a 35% increase from last week. The latest rate is equivalent to 469 weekly cases per 100,000 population; a rate of 100 or more is considered high.

The daily case rate is nowhere near as high as that seen during the Omicron surge, which peaked at 42,000, but surpassed last summer’s Delta surge peak of 3,500.

However, the official case count is a significant undercount, given the wide availability of home testing, the results of which are not reliably reported. Among the test results reported, LA County is reporting a positivity rate of 17%, more than double the rate from this time last month.

“Many health care providers in the community tell us that they are seeing closer to a 40% test positivity rate among their patients coming for treatment,” Ferrer said.

As of Thursday, there were about 1,223 people infected with coronaviruses in LA County hospitals, twice as many as a month earlier and the most since February.

The rate of positive coronavirus hospitalizations has climbed 25% in a single week. On Thursday, the Department of Public Health said LA County was reporting 10.5 weekly coronavirus-positive admissions, down from 8.4 the previous week.

Thursday was the first time since February that weekly hospital admissions exceeded 10, which puts the county in the high community level for COVID-19 as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 42% of coronavirus-positive patients in LA County are being treated for COVID-19 disease; the others are hospitalized for other reasons. Nevertheless, patients infected with the coronavirus represent a potential strain on the healthcare system, due to the greater resources needed to isolate them.

“Although many people who are hospitalized are not there due to COVID disease, the growing numbers indicate that for a significant number of people, COVID remains a very dangerous virus,” Ferrer said.

Additionally, the percentage of weekly ER visits related to coronavirus-related issues has doubled from 5% in mid-May to 10% now.

“This indicates that COVID is putting increasing pressure on our medical systems as viral transmission increases and there are many more infected people who are sick enough to seek emergency medical care,” Ferrer said.

Times editor Anousha Sakoui contributed to this report.

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