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January 24, 2021

Workplace outbreaks to be public information starting this month

WATSONVILLE—Starting this month, most employers will be required by law to report workplace Covid-19 outbreaks to county health departments thanks to Assembly Bill 685.

Reported outbreaks, defined as three or more cases at one address over a 14-day period, will then be public information published by the California Department of Public Health from industry to industry.

Reporting an outbreak should not be a big change for most employers, as CDPH guidance released in June and revised in September already requires them to notify their local health department of Covid-19 outbreaks, even though the virus might not have been spread in the workplace. But the speed at which they need to notify their employees, among other things, will indeed be different.

Employers are now required to provide employees a written notice—such as a letter, email or text—of possible Covid-19 exposure within one day from when they are made aware of a positive case within the workplace. The written notice must be in English and “in the language understood by most employees.”

Employers must also inform employees of their Covid-19-related benefits to which they may be entitled to under federal, state or local laws. And they are also required to keep records of the written notices provided to employees for at least three years.

With more than 2,500 active Covid-19 cases in Santa Cruz County as of Wednesday, there are currently several workplace outbreaks in businesses with 50 or more employees, County spokesman Jason Hoppin said. He did, however, say that it is “relatively rare” that those outbreaks occur in the workplace, and that the spread most often happens when employees lower their guard after work or during breaks.

The majority of cases have come from household mixing, Hoppin said, adding that he is not aware of a Covid-19 case that was transmitted from an employee to a customer—or vice versa.

“That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, but I have not seen that be reported yet,” he said.

On Monday, rumors swirled on social media about a possible large outbreak and workplace negligence at the Watsonville Target. A former Target employee who spoke to this publication posted multiple text message conversations with current employees who claimed managers there were encouraging them to return to work despite testing positive for Covid-19.

A Target spokesperson said in a prepared statement that the Watsonville location did indeed have “multiple” Covid-19 cases last month, but did not say how many employees there tested positive and did not comment on the claims that managers rushed employees back to work.

“We communicated directly with these team members, who were all placed on a quarantine leave for 14 days after each case was confirmed and followed all health department guidelines,” the spokesperson wrote. “We pay team members while on leave, and our thoughts are with them during this challenging time.”

Hoppin said that Target location reported an outbreak in mid-December, but has not seen a rash of cases since. Almost every large employer in the county, Hoppin said, has recently met the outbreak threshold because of the current prevalence of the virus.

“There are many outbreaks across the county, including in Watsonville,” he said.

The county’s Covid-19-related death toll rose to 97 Wednesday and the overall number of cases surpassed the 9,800-mark. 

Testing continues to be in high demand, Hoppin said, as the state-funded testing site at Ramsay Park run by OptumServe has steadily met its 330 per day test capacity since opening another so-called “lane” late last year. Hoppin said the second OptumServe testing site that recently opened at the Civic Auditorium in Santa Cruz is also meeting its capacity of 165 tests per day.

The Watsonville site is in the top 10 most used OptumServe sites in California, Hoppin said, and tests at those free community sites are taking anywhere from 2-3 days.

“We are testing a lot of people and there’s a lot of people that are looking to get tested,” he said. “Unfortunately, many of them are coming back positive.”

Tony Nuñez
Tony Nuñez
Managing Editor Tony Nuñez is a longtime member of the Watsonville community who served as Sports Editor for five years before entering his current role in 2019. A Watsonville High, Cabrillo College and San Jose State University alumnus, he covers the city, business, housing, entertainment and more.

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