OGDEN — Worksites are the leading source of COVID-19 outbreaks in Weber and Morgan counties, as across the state.
And with the many manufacturing facilities in Weber County, such operations — and other worksites — are a big focus of local health officials’ efforts to rein in the mounting number of COVID-19 cases.
“We have worked with several manufacturing companies. They can have a big impact on our caseload because they often have a large number of employees working in close contact with each other,” said Lori Buttars, spokesperson for the Weber-Morgan Health Department, which serves Weber and Morgan counties. “Precautions are critical for these big businesses.”
Weber-Morgan Health Department officials aren’t publicly identifying the locations of outbreaks in the two counties, but as of Thursday there were 21 such sites, according to the tally. Fourteen were worksites, three were at nursing homes, two were in group homes and another two were in detention facilities. The vast majority of coronavirus cases in the two counties — 1,487 of 1,515, or 98.2% of the total — involve Weber County residents.
The Utah Department of Health said 234 long-term care facilities across Utah, including nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, had registered coronavirus cases, although just 50 of them still have active cases. Apart from that, 357 of the 420 outbreak sites identified across the state — 85% of the total — had occurred at worksites, according to the figures. An outbreak is defined as two or more cases “associated with a setting outside of a household” within 14 days of each other.
Generally speaking, Jesse Bush, who heads the Weber-Morgan Health Department Division of Health Promotion, said local businesses have been taking steps to guard against the spread of COVID-19. For some businesses, however, “it doesn’t hit home until there’s a positive employee,” he said.
Mindful of the prevalence of cases stemming from worksite contacts, the Health Department helped with a COVID-19 mobile-testing initiative on Thursday in Ogden. Besides for those from businesses that have had coronavirus cases, it was geared to the Latino community, the homeless, first responders and others with a heightened potential of contracting coronavirus. A total of 211 people got tested, free of charge.
Finding those who are infected helps in stopping the spread of COVID-19, said Buttars, on hand for the event. Increasing the number of people getting tested, meanwhile, “gives us a better picture of what’s going on,” said Taylor Knuth, who helps lead a local task force focused on combatting COVID-19 that also participated on Thursday.
FOLLOWING UP ON COMPLAINTS
As is, mask and/or glove use is fairly typical at some worksites, according to Bush. If and when a case emerges, some businesses may bump up their precautionary measures to include symptom-checking of employees and heightened cleaning routines.
Health department employees can’t visit every business in the county, and contact-tracing — tracing an infected person’s travels — can be key in pinpointing where cases are occurring. Otherwise, health officials follow up on calls and complaints from the public about possible cases and COVID-19 issues at worksites and other locations, Bush said. Among some of the common complaints locally are failure of businesses to implement social distancing or symptom-checking routines.
Health officials will call or visit businesses they receive reports about, making suggestions, if merited, about possible changes to guard against COVID-19’s spread. When workers are infected, others who may have had contact with the affected employee will be notified.
“Several manufacturing companies have reached out to the Health Department to discuss their operating plans, which include cleaning and sanitation, social distancing, quarantine and sick day/return-to-work policies. These companies have tried to be proactive in preventing the spread of COVID-19, both for the safety of their staff but also because an outbreak can be economically devastating to a business,” said Buttars. She invites businesses to contact her department with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Buttars also noted that workers must take precautions — staying home if in contact with someone who’s sick, using a mask, and more — so they don’t inadvertently bring COVID-19 to work.
One of the highest-profile worksite COVID-19 outbreaks in Utah occurred at the JBS USA meatpacking plant in Hyrum, in Cache County, where 287 workers tested positive.
More locally, COVID-19 has been a big focus among workers at the varied U.S. Internal Revenue Service facilities in Ogden. Robert Lawrence, president of the Ogden-area chapter of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents IRS workers, addressed the concerns in an open letter to employees on Thursday.
“I know that this pandemic has us all on edge, especially with the rising confirmed cases in our state and here at work,” he wrote.
He went on, expressing sympathy with the angst many are apparently feeling. The IRS is Weber County’s largest employer, with some 5,000 workers.
“We wish we could snap our fingers and make everything better, unfortunately this is not the case. We understand not everybody is going to be happy with the way things are, but I assure you we are working on it every day to help improve the conditions we are being forced to work under,” he said. “Please be safe, please wear a mask as it is currently mandated and please take care of yourselves and loved ones.”