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    Keeping an Eye on the COVID Exposure-Risk Ball

    COVID-19 Exposure
    • Published
    • 21 January 2021
    • Category
    • General

    Employers who monitor COVID-19 case rates and contact tracing data have a heightened awareness of exposure risks and can adjust accordingly to better protect their employees.

    However, keeping an eye on the COVID-19 ball can be more complicated than it sounds, especially for companies with multiple-site, interstate or nationwide operations.

    The U.S. does not have standardized COVID-19 data-collection and reporting practices. Case-related data comes from disparate sources ranging from neighborhoods, cities, counties, districts, parishes and distinct geographic regions, to population groups and workplaces, to state and federal entities.

    Contact tracing, while providing useful insights, also has limitations. Contact tracing involves interviewing an infected person to find people with whom they had close contact while infectious and notifying them of potential exposure. (Refer to our FAQ on contact tracing.) As the number of cases has grown, some close contacts are now hearing directly from the infected person because there are not enough trained contract tracers to keep up with demand. In addition, many people with COVID-19 seem to have no idea where they were exposed, Kaiser Health News reported on Jan. 8, 2021.

    Where To Turn?

    The COVID Tracking Project, published by The Atlantic Monthly Group, is a helpful resource. The tracking project stiches together the nation’s patchwork of data. It features current case rates; hospitalizations; deaths; number of diagnostic and antibody tests conducted; cases and death rates by race and ethnicity per capita; and outcomes in long-term care facilities by state.

    If you access the tracking project website, it’s important to follow instructions on how to interpret the data when making judgment calls that affect business operations. The project sponsors also explain why there may be differences in numbers on state dashboards compared to those tracked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization or sites sponsored by respected sources such as Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, Our World in Data, USAFacts and The New York Times. For example, in some cases there may be reporting time lags, certain categories not displayed on a state dashboard, inconsistent use of definitions or reliance on county public health rather than state public health data.

    Where Do People Get Exposed?

    This Jan. 15, 2021, chart from the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) is an example of a COVID-19 exposure risk snapshot. Using an interactive function, we selected the top-20 potential exposure locations for confirmed and probable cases based on information collected through contact tracing. Different types of workplaces occupy a significant percentage of pie slices. To see where additional settings rank, visit the IDPH website.


    Here are a few more examples: Montana’s contact tracers estimate that 1 in 6 people are exposed at work. Vermont data shows workplaces have been connected to multiple outbreaks, Julia Ries wrote in a Dec. 17, 2020, (updated Dec. 23) HuffPost article on common places where COVID-19 spreads.

    Other Tools for Risk Assessment

    Here are a few more ways to interpret exposure risk:

    1. COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool
      This real-time, interactive website is a collaborative project of the Georgia Institute of Technology, Applied Bioinformatics Laboratory and Stanford University, powered by RStudio. The site provides interactive context to assess exposure risk when one or more infected individuals are present at events of various sizes. Risk calculations support the ongoing need for protective measures to compensate for a lack of widespread diagnostic testing, according to researchers. The risk level is the estimated chance (0-100 percent) that at least one COVID-19 positive individual will be present at an event in a county, given the size of the event.
    1. National Academy for State Health Policy (NASHP)
      The NASHP website provides access to its COVID-19 State Action Center and links to information such as each state’s COVID-19 restrictions, emergency orders, mask requirements and travel advisories, and updates on state vaccine rollouts.
    1. Super-Spreaders
      An article published Nov. 10, 2020, in Nature, suggests that most COVID-19 transmissions occur at “super-spreader” sites – like full-service restaurants, fitness centers and cafes – and where people remain in close quarters for extended periods. The findings are based on a computer model that predicts the spread of COVID-19 in 10 major U.S. cities for next spring. It analyzes three factors that drive infection risk: where people go, how long they stay and how many other people are there at the same time. The study merges demographic data, epidemiological estimates and anonymous cell phone location information.

    The team of Stanford University-led researchers who developed the model say it can be used to help minimize the spread of COVID-19 by revealing tradeoffs between new infections and lost sales if establishments open at reduced capacity. They recommend interventions at the local level including:

    • More stringent caps on occupancy numbers in certain settings
    • Emergency food distribution centers to reduce crowding in stores
    • Free and widely available diagnostic testing in high-risk neighborhoods
    • Paid sick leave or pay policies to encourage essential workers who are infected to stay home
    • Workplace interventions such as high-quality personal protective equipment, better ventilation and social distancing

    Finally, it’s important to remember that an estimated 65 percent of infected people are asymptomatic and don’t realize they are capable of spreading the virus.

    Given the complexities associated with exposure risk assessment, it makes sense to take all of the precautions available to employers, as feasible, to always be on the safe side: masks, social distancing, good hygiene and ventilation, symptom screening, testing, vaccination promotion, quarantine and isolation, and clearance for return to work by medical professionals after illness.

    To help keep your eye on the ball, please join us for WorkCare’s free weekly webinar on Preventing and Managing COVID-19 in the Workplace.

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