Confusion, disparities in COVID safety measures

Illustratikon of COVID impact on California. (Photo: Alexander Lukatskiy, Shutterstock)

Timing can speak volumes. Consider this: As the Omicron variant of the coronavirus increases the infection rate, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cut COVID-19 quarantine and isolation times from 10 to five days on Dec. 27.

Gov.  Gavin Newsom said that the California Department of Public Health would align itself with the CDC recommendations. The CDPH did that with the following additions on Dec. 30. 

“Local health jurisdictions may be more restrictive in determining isolation and quarantine recommendations based on local circumstances, in certain higher-risk settings or during certain situations that may require more protective isolation and quarantine requirements (for example, during active outbreaks).” Further, the CDPH Recommends additional mitigation measures, including testing to exit isolation and quarantine and improved masking.”

California employers have skin in this game. The ETS connects with their bottom lines.

Meanwhile, the California Occupational Safety & Health Standards Board’s COVID-19 quarantine and isolation times rules remain the same as they were prior to the CDC shortening them. In December, the COSHSB approved a second re-adoption of the Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) for preventing COVID-19 transmission at work, which takes effect on Jan. 14.

California employers have skin in this game. The ETS connects with their bottom lines that depend upon employees’ labor services during the pandemic. 

According to the new ETS, unvaccinated employees in close contact with a COVID-19 infected person cannot return to work for 10 days. Moreover, vaccinated employees who have had a close contact with an infected person can return to work but must wear a mask and social distance for 14 days. .

“This means that California employers and employees will be required by law to ignore CDC and CDPH relative to isolation periods…” — Michael Miiller

How to understand the different federal and state approaches to containing the transmission of COVID-19?

We turn to Michael Miiller, director of government relations for the California Winegrape Growers Association. “This means that California employers and employees will be required by law to ignore CDC and CDPH relative to isolation periods and strictly comply with the ETS instead,” he said by email. “The ETS is an inflexible regulation that simply cannot keep up with the science.”

In the meantime, we turn to a labor union that represents frontline healthcare workers. “The California Nurses Association/National Nurses United condemns any shortening of isolation and quarantine guidelines,” according to a union statement. “There has been no big change in the science to justify reducing the number of days an infected person should isolate. Studies have demonstrated wide variations in the periods during which people remained contagious.”

The CDC did not reply to a reporter’s request for the scientific evidence behind reduced quarantine and isolation times.

There is also the matter of asymptomatic infections.

Marcy Goldstein-Gelb is co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. She casts doubt on the CDC’s scientific basis for shortened quarantine and isolation times. 

“The decision was based on early findings of Omicron,” Goldstein-Gelb said via email, “and doesn’t take into consideration the fact that many people who become infected don’t know precisely when and where they became infected. It also assumes that people will be wearing masks after that shortened period.”

There is also the matter of asymptomatic infections. In short, this term describes infected individuals who do not experience coronavirus symptoms.  

We return to Goldstein-Gelb. “Yet there’s no federal safety requirement ensuring that workers are provided with masks,” she said, “and that workers and consumers will be wearing them.  Lastly, to be clear, the decision was not a scientific one — it was a political one, as was demonstrated by the rationale: getting workers back to work. The best way to get workers back to work is to ensure them a safe workplace: require employers engage workers in developing and enacting a comprehensive infectious disease prevention program.” 

Isolating the infected is no doubt a critical element of the fight to slow the spread of the pandemic. To this end, the CDC describes isolation as “behavior after a confirmed infection.”

 Currently, however, the demand for such testing outstrips the supply of test sites, as those seeking their coronavirus status are learning. A reporter visited the Kaiser Permanente website, for example, finding that the page to schedule a COVID-19 test is unreachable. 

There are proposals to address the deficit of test sites and other COVID-19 issues in year three of the pandemic. The CNA/NNU, in a Jan. 3 press release, calls for strengthening the public health infrastructure “to include sufficient staffing, supplies, and space for robust surveillance, testing, case isolation, and contact tracing to ensure that the virus is effectively contained.” 

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