As workplaces reopen, anxiety over coronavirus cases mounts among employees
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect the nature of positive cases among Mind Springs Health employees and include an updated definition of a close contact.
KEYSTONE — With the reopening of many businesses comes new cases of the novel coronavirus among workers. Now, it’s more likely than ever that people will work with someone who tests positive for the virus, but public health officials hope to ease concerns as they take action to prevent the spread.
The Summit Daily News has received two anonymous news submissions about cases of the virus from concerned employees at both Mind Springs Health and Breckenridge Distillery. In both submissions, people shared concern about going to work after someone tested positive for the virus.
Lauren Gilbert, who leads the county’s contact tracing team, confirmed that Mind Springs had one employee test positive and one “probable” positive case, while Breckenridge Distillery had two employees test positive. Neither location is considered to be a virus outbreak, which occurs when two or more cases of the virus are confirmed in a facility or non-household cases with an onset in a 14-day period, Julie Sutor, Summit County director of communications, said.
The emails received by the Summit Daily are just a fraction of the complaints and concerns sent to county officials on their COVID-19 hotline. Gilbert said public health officials investigate each complaint as they would for any other situation.
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“We try to follow up with the employer to kind of assess what their practices are in that facility,” she said. “We also talk with a complainant, if they’re willing to speak with us, and kind of get a little bit more information about what their concern is and try to give them information that they’re looking for.”
The public health case investigators team only talks to people who are considered close contacts of the person who tested positive, which is anyone who was within 6 feet of the person for 15 minutes or more, Gilbert said. The 15 minute time window is based on updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which had previously defined close contact as anyone who was within 6 feet of an individual for 10 minutes or more.
“In an interview we do ask questions about where that person works and try to determine if they worked while infectious,” she said. “After the interview is complete, we do work closely with the case and the employer to try to confirm the shifts worked and try to determine if there’s any close contacts of that case.”
The contact tracers then reach out to each close contact individually to give them the information they need moving forward and ask them to quarantine for 14 days. If an employee hears about their coworker testing positive, that doesn’t mean they will be approached by public health with more information, however.
“We take respecting people’s privacy very seriously so we do only share information on cases on a need to know basis, where there’s actionable items for people to take measures to protect themselves,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert said there are some red flags for employees to be aware of when it comes to their employer’s response to the virus. Most of all, employees should be concerned if their workplace isn’t following the local public health order, which includes enforced physical distancing and face covering policies.
“If employers are not allowing their employees to quarantine or isolate, that is a major concern,” Gilbert said. “Also if employers are sharing private health information without the permission of the case and sharing that among the staff.”
When public health becomes aware of an employer that isn’t following the public health order, officials first offer guidance and try to come from a place of understanding, Gilbert said. If the problem persists, then the county may consider more disciplinary actions like closing the business.
“I’ve found that if you come from a place of understanding and listening and hearing their concerns, you can typically come to a solution without having to take enforceable action,” she said.
The county can’t control much of what happens from the business owner’s perspective, however. Whether the employer decides to tell people that someone tested positive, close the store for cleaning or allow people who are not considered close contacts to work from home is entirely up to them, Gilbert said.
Stephanie Keister, Mind Springs Health’s public relations manager, said the company deep cleaned the Frisco office after confirming the first case and is offering paid leave for those who have to isolate or quarantine. She also said that telehealth is available for clients who aren’t comfortable going in person.
“All of our outpatient offices very quickly, in early March, … went to virtual capacity,” she said. “All of our therapy sessions were conducted through video and telehealth sessions. Our employees haven’t even been in the offices for the most part.”
Breckenridge Distillery did not respond to requests for comment prior to the publication of this story.
Gilbert said if employees are concerned about their workplace, they can call the county’s non-emergent dispatch number, 970-668-8600.
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