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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.
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.
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.
Here are a few more ways to interpret exposure risk:
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:
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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