Effective Jan. 1, employers throughout the state will be required to notify public health officials within 48 hours of worksite instances of three or more positive COVID-19 cases among employees within a 14-day period.
Additionally, employers will be required within 24 hours to notify all of their employees, employers of subcontracted employees, and volunteers of potential exposure whenever three or more confirmed positive cases are confirmed within a 14-day period.
The new requirements are provisions of Assembly Bill 685, which empowers the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) to take stricter enforcement action against employers when outbreaks occur, including potentially closing a business or a work area that poses an imminent health and safety hazard.
Under the legislation, an outbreak is defined as three or more laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases within a two-week period among employees who live in different households, the state Department of Industrial Relations reported.
Locally, public health officials were aware of more than a dozen outbreaks of COVID-19 infections in a wide range of public and private enterprises, including at state prisons, congregate health sites, schools, and childcare facilities, agricultural companies, law enforcement agencies, warehouses, and retail stores.
“With the exception of school and childcare facilities, most of the outbreaks were identified by epidemiology staff and case investigators,” said Paula Kriner, Imperial County Public Health Department epidemiology manager, in a Dec. 18 email.
Going forward, the reporting requirements of AB 685 will make it easier for local public health officials to investigate and confirm potential work-related outbreaks. The county Public Health Department will then report confirmed outbreaks to the California Department of Public Health.
“That information is going to be made public” by the state, county Public Health Director Janette Angulo said on Dec. 16, during a Zoom meeting that was hosted by the department to advise the public about the reporting requirements of AB 685.
Currently, neither the state nor the county release information to the public regarding reports of confirmed outbreaks at places of employment. Across the state and nation, a debate has centered around whether publicly disclosing workplace outbreaks would be helpful in combating the virus, or needlessly shame impacted companies and entities.
The county does have an existing online COVID-19 outbreak reporting system for schools and childcare facilities but does not disclose any confirmed reports.
The worksite-related outbreaks that county Public Health has identified to date on its own have been reported to the state, Kriner said during the Dec. 16 Zoom meeting.
The implementation of AB 685 is likely to further tax the limited number of Public Health staff that probe reports of potential outbreaks and perform the required follow-up investigations.
“We do have a team who investigates outbreaks, but we could also use more,” Kriner said Thursday, Dec. 17, during a joint press conference with county and local hospital officials.
On Tuesday, Dec. 22, Angulo advised the county on the status of the department’s contact-tracers/case investigators.
She explained that there are currently 77 trained contact-tracers/case investigators and seven supervisors working in Imperial County. She said 26 (and one supervisor) originate from county Public Health, 35 (and two supervisors) are from the state, and 16 (and four supervisors) are from the Centers for Disease Control Foundation.
Angulo said there are now 27 county employees being trained to conduct contact tracing and case investigation: three from Public Health, 12 from Behavioral Health, three from Probation, and nine from the county library system.
In the meantime, businesses were being advised to designate a staff member to act as a point of contact for fellow co-workers and with county Public Health officials as part of the AB 685 reporting requirements.
During the Dec. 16 meeting regarding AB 685, a Public Health representative demonstrated the process of reporting positive cases that meet the definition of an outbreak under the bill, including the lengthy questionnaire that employers must submit to county health officials.
Employers were also advised to report any positive case that meet the parameters of AB 685’s reporting requirements, even if they weren’t sure if the employee contracted the virus at the worksite or elsewhere.
“If they are on your site, you have to include in cases if they come out positive,” said Vanessa Caldera, county Public Health administrative analyst, during the Dec. 16 meeting.
Employers will face potential Cal/OSHA fines for failing to notify workers within 24 hours of potential exposure to confirmed COVID-positive cases at the workplace, Public Health reported.
Potential exposure is defined as when an individual has spent a cumulative period of at least 15 minutes within a day and within a distance of less than six feet of a person who has been determined to be COVID-19 positive.
The period of potential exposure begins two days before the COVID-positive individual developed symptoms, public health officials said.
The county Public Health Department has been in talks with local stakeholders and state officials to schedule a series of webinars aimed at informing local employers about AB 685, as well as Senate Bill 1159.
That bill is already in effect and amended workers’ compensation laws to establish “rebuttable presumptions” that a worker’s COVID-related illness is an occupational injury and therefore eligible for benefits.
On Dec. 29, Jan. 7, and Jan. 21, the Imperial Valley Business Recovery Task Force will host a series of webinars in English and Spanish regarding the new legislation. Those interested in attending are encouraged to register at the task force’s website, www.ivbizrecovery.com
The county Public Health Department’s website to report outbreaks at local businesses is operating as well and can be found on the agency’s webpage devoted to COVID-related news. The link to the workplace reporting outbreak form is found by scrolling down on the agency’s COVID-related webpage to the “Business & Employer” guidance and resources link.