Virus spread affects local workers and businesses

07/15/2020

As cases of Covid-19 continue to rise across California, essential workers on Marin’s coast are finding it increasingly difficult to get easy access to testing and are experiencing longer wait times for results, creating hardships for local businesses. 

There have been 25 positive cases in West Marin since the start of the pandemic. This week, the cumulative case count in Point Reyes Station rose to 11; in the other towns, it remains below 10, too low for the county to report. Health officials say there are fewer than 10 West Marin residents with active cases but would not provide an exact number.  

A handful of local businesses, including Building Supply, Hog Island Oyster Company and the Coastal Health Alliance, reported that they each had one employee test positive over the last several weeks and had decided to quarantine other employees. The Coastal Health Alliance employee was cleared to return to work this week, though all the businesses were still waiting on test results for sequestered staff. The employees live in both Marin and Sonoma Counties. 

Marin’s health department, which hired 15 new bilingual contact tracers this week to assist its team of 50 tracers, helps businesses to navigate the response to a positive case and coordinates with neighboring counties if need be. Neither customers nor patients were contacted for quarantine as part of the tracing effort for the West Marin businesses, since they were not considered to have been exposed. Each of the businesses was following best practices, and exposures in all three cases were thought to have taken place outside the workplace.

In the event of an outbreak where more employees were likely exposed, the county will bring its mobile testing unit to a business, and may recommend that the business close. Businesses are not required to disclose outbreaks to the public, but all three local businesses did so to the Light. 

“When you look at the prevalence in our community, and the prevalence in our essential workforce, it’s something that unfortunately all businesses should be prepared for: the likelihood that at some point at least one of their employees will be positive for Covid-19,” Dr. Matt Willis, Marin’s public health officer, told county supervisors on Tuesday.

Among Marin’s growing infections, Latinos account for 78.3 percent of cases and 50 percent of hospitalizations. There are now a total of 26 Covid-19 patients in Marin hospitals, seven of whom are inmates from San Quentin. Nearly 100 other inmates out of the total 2,000 infected at the prison are receiving care at hospitals elsewhere in the region.

The percent of tests that come back positive, a metric used to show transmission trends apart from the total number of tests conducted, is 7.1 percent in Marin. That’s on par with the percent positivity rate statewide of 7.4 percent. 

Yet two weeks ago, the statewide positivity rate was 6.1 percent. The increase compelled Governor Gavin Newsom to step in, and on Monday, he rolled back a number of previously allowable activities for counties such as Marin that are on a state watch list as well as some for the state as a whole. 

“We are moving back into a modification mode of our original stay-at-home order, and we are doing so with what I’ve commonly referred to as a dimmer switch, not an on-and-off switch,” he said during a press conference on Monday. 

As of July 13, all counties in California had to close indoor dining, wineries and tasting rooms, movie theaters, family entertainment centers, zoos and museums, card rooms and bars. For the over 30 counties on the state’s watch list—accounting for 80 percent of California’s residents and including Marin since the beginning of July—additional closures were required last week. In Marin, this meant closing hair salons and barber shops, indoor malls, and indoor offices for non-essential businesses. New enforcement protocols will be announced later this week.

Dire circumstances across the nation have placed ubiquitous strain on testing in California. 

“Our testing capacity has increased exponentially. At the same time, new national supply chain challenges and large volumes of specimens sent to commercial laboratories have resulted in growing delays in processing times,” Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s health and human services agency secretary, said in a statement.

On Tuesday, Dr. Ghaly released guidance on new priorities for testing, given limited supplies: People will be prioritized who are hospitalized with symptoms of Covid-19 or who are being tested as part of the investigation and management of outbreaks from contract tracing efforts. 

The second tier identified for priority are people with symptoms and those without symptoms who fall into high-risk categories, including people who live and work in nursing homes, homeless shelters and prisons, healthcare workers, and patients in hospitals. Essential workers who regularly interface with the public are in the third tier. Once the state’s turnaround time for results is less than 48 hours, the fourth tier—everyone else—can be tested.  

The state’s testing task force, which launched in April, scaled up from 2,000 tests per day at that time to more than 100,000 tests per day now. Two new chairs appointed to that task force this week said they were working on further increasing capacity, especially through providing free testing for providers and encouraging private practices to open up test sites.  

Until about two weeks ago, turnaround times in Marin were around two to three days. But reporting times have increased to a week or more in some cases due to increased demand, Dr. Willis said.

When testing became more available this spring, the county recommended that essential workers be tested at least once a month. In June, the Coastal Health Alliance opened a pop-up test site in collaboration with Marin’s health department. The alliance—which this month merged with Petaluma Health Center—has not been able to meet demand, former C.E.O. and current West Marin services director Steve Siegel said. 

People are showing up at 8:30 a.m. and all slots are filled by 10 a.m., when testing starts. Although the clinic expanded from 50 to 70 tests a week, Mr. Siegel said he was going to have to refine testing protocol to ensure that essential workers and those in contact with a confirmed case are prioritized.

The alliance is collecting samples, but the county is processing the results. Mr. Siegel said he was very concerned by the increased wait times. “Longer wait times are frustrating for medical providers and public health because then we don’t have the tools we need. Testing, contact tracing, quarantining is all we have.”

Brittany Hartwell, the manager at the Palace Market, said staffers were encouraged to get tested as often as possible. Despite some scares that caused employees to quarantine, no one has tested positive at the market since the start of the pandemic, she said on Wednesday. 

The local businesses with positive cases each said that increased wait times for testing results were straining them, causing quarantined employees to stay home for longer time periods. 

All three are following extensive best practices in their workplaces, including health screening questions and temperature checks for all employees every morning, increased professional cleaning of indoor spaces, staggered break times, reduced hours and a host of other physical distancing practices. 

The exposures were thought to be contracted outside each of the workplaces.

More than two weeks ago, Mr. Siegel said his staff member tested positive after an exposure from outside the workplace, and the organization moved to quarantine five other members who may have had meaningful contact.

The five employees quarantined for 12 days before being tested by services not provided by the clinic, and are currently still awaiting results. After clearing tests, the staffer who had tested positive was approved to return to work this week. Mr. Siegel said the organization has informed patients coming for in-person visits.

Terry Sawyer, a co-owner of Hog Island, said that two weeks ago a member of his seven-person farm crew tested positive, and that the entire crew remains quarantined while they await their results. In the meantime, he and other management positions were helping out on the farm. 

Ken Dunaj, the owner of Building Supply, said that one of his 12 employees tested positive for Covid-19 after going home with a scratchy throat on July 1. Seven other employees are quarantined and awaiting test results. 

“The only way we can survive this as a community is to improve testing,” Mr. Dunaj said yesterday. “I’m doing everything I can to protect everyone, but this is the seventh day I’m waiting for test results for employees: Our hands are completely tied from a business standpoint.”

Nevertheless, keeping people at home in the interim was a clear choice, Mr. Dunaj said, though he is short-handed. 

“The community is so tight-knit as far as the people that live and work here,” he said. “When you have this tight connectivity, you not only have a responsibility to your own store and own employees, but a much broader responsibility.” 

There are some efforts at the county to assist those who are unable to work. 

On Tuesday, the Marin Community Foundation allocated $250,000 and the county contributed $500,000 for disaster relief payments to individuals who have tested positive for Covid-19 or have a high probability of being positive. Through collaboration with the Multicultural Center of Marin, people who earn less than 300 percent of the federal poverty line and worked in the last month will get a check of $1,000 or, if they have a family, $1,500.

Marin has distributed $110,000 as part of the same effort. The new batch of funds is intended to last for three months. 

As cases of Covid-19 continue to rise across California, essential workers on Marin’s coast are finding it increasingly difficult to get easy access to testing and are experiencing longer wait times for results, creating hardships for local businesses. 

There have been 25 positive cases in West Marin since the start of the pandemic. This week, the cumulative case count in Point Reyes Station rose to 11; in the other towns, it remains below 10, too low for the county to report. Health officials say there are fewer than 10 West Marin residents with active cases but would not provide an exact number.  

A handful of local businesses, including Building Supply, Hog Island Oyster Company and the Coastal Health Alliance, reported that they each had one employee test positive over the last several weeks and had decided to quarantine other employees. The Coastal Health Alliance employee was cleared to return to work this week, though all the businesses were still waiting on test results for sequestered staff. The employees live in both Marin and Sonoma Counties. 

Marin’s health department, which hired 15 new bilingual contact tracers this week to assist its team of 50 tracers, helps businesses to navigate the response to a positive case and coordinates with neighboring counties if need be. Neither customers nor patients were contacted for quarantine as part of the tracing effort for the West Marin businesses, since they were not considered to have been exposed. Each of the businesses was following best practices, and exposures in all three cases were thought to have taken place outside the workplace.

In the event of an outbreak where more employees were likely exposed, the county will bring its mobile testing unit to a business, and may recommend that the business close. Businesses are not required to disclose outbreaks to the public, but all three local businesses did so to the Light. 

“When you look at the prevalence in our community, and the prevalence in our essential workforce, it’s something that unfortunately all businesses should be prepared for: the likelihood that at some point at least one of their employees will be positive for Covid-19,” Dr. Matt Willis, Marin’s public health officer, told county supervisors on Tuesday.

Among Marin’s growing infections, Latinos account for 78.3 percent of cases and 50 percent of hospitalizations. There are now a total of 26 Covid-19 patients in Marin hospitals, seven of whom are inmates from San Quentin. Nearly 100 other inmates out of the total 2,000 infected at the prison are receiving care at hospitals elsewhere in the region.

The percent of tests that come back positive, a metric used to show transmission trends apart from the total number of tests conducted, is 7.1 percent in Marin. That’s on par with the percent positivity rate statewide of 7.4 percent. 

Yet two weeks ago, the statewide positivity rate was 6.1 percent. The increase compelled Governor Gavin Newsom to step in, and on Monday, he rolled back a number of previously allowable activities for counties such as Marin that are on a state watch list as well as some for the state as a whole. 

“We are moving back into a modification mode of our original stay-at-home order, and we are doing so with what I’ve commonly referred to as a dimmer switch, not an on-and-off switch,” he said during a press conference on Monday. 

As of July 13, all counties in California had to close indoor dining, wineries and tasting rooms, movie theaters, family entertainment centers, zoos and museums, card rooms and bars. For the over 30 counties on the state’s watch list—accounting for 80 percent of California’s residents and including Marin since the beginning of July—additional closures were required last week. In Marin, this meant closing hair salons and barber shops, indoor malls, and indoor offices for non-essential businesses. New enforcement protocols will be announced later this week.

Dire circumstances across the nation have placed ubiquitous strain on testing in California. 

“Our testing capacity has increased exponentially. At the same time, new national supply chain challenges and large volumes of specimens sent to commercial laboratories have resulted in growing delays in processing times,” Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s health and human services agency secretary, said in a statement.

On Tuesday, Dr. Ghaly released guidance on new priorities for testing, given limited supplies: People will be prioritized who are hospitalized with symptoms of Covid-19 or who are being tested as part of the investigation and management of outbreaks from contract tracing efforts. 

The second tier identified for priority are people with symptoms and those without symptoms who fall into high-risk categories, including people who live and work in nursing homes, homeless shelters and prisons, healthcare workers, and patients in hospitals. Essential workers who regularly interface with the public are in the third tier. Once the state’s turnaround time for results is less than 48 hours, the fourth tier—everyone else—can be tested.  

The state’s testing task force, which launched in April, scaled up from 2,000 tests per day at that time to more than 100,000 tests per day now. Two new chairs appointed to that task force this week said they were working on further increasing capacity, especially through providing free testing for providers and encouraging private practices to open up test sites.  

Until about two weeks ago, turnaround times in Marin were around two to three days. But reporting times have increased to a week or more in some cases due to increased demand, Dr. Willis said.

When testing became more available this spring, the county recommended that essential workers be tested at least once a month. In June, the Coastal Health Alliance opened a pop-up test site in collaboration with Marin’s health department. The alliance—which this month merged with Petaluma Health Center—has not been able to meet demand, former C.E.O. and current West Marin services director Steve Siegel said. 

People are showing up at 8:30 a.m. and all slots are filled by 10 a.m., when testing starts. Although the clinic expanded from 50 to 70 tests a week, Mr. Siegel said he was going to have to refine testing protocol to ensure that essential workers and those in contact with a confirmed case are prioritized.

The alliance is collecting samples, but the county is processing the results. Mr. Siegel said he was very concerned by the increased wait times. “Longer wait times are frustrating for medical providers and public health because then we don’t have the tools we need. Testing, contact tracing, quarantining is all we have.”

Brittany Hartwell, the manager at the Palace Market, said staffers were encouraged to get tested as often as possible. Despite some scares that caused employees to quarantine, no one has tested positive at the market since the start of the pandemic, she said on Wednesday. 

The local businesses with positive cases each said that increased wait times for testing results were straining them, causing quarantined employees to stay home for longer time periods. 

All three are following extensive best practices in their workplaces, including health screening questions and temperature checks for all employees every morning, increased professional cleaning of indoor spaces, staggered break times, reduced hours and a host of other physical distancing practices. 

The exposures were thought to be contracted outside each of the workplaces.

More than two weeks ago, Mr. Siegel said his staff member tested positive after an exposure from outside the workplace, and the organization moved to quarantine five other members who may have had meaningful contact.

The five employees quarantined for 12 days before being tested by services not provided by the clinic, and are currently still awaiting results. After clearing tests, the staffer who had tested positive was approved to return to work this week. Mr. Siegel said the organization has informed patients coming for in-person visits.

Terry Sawyer, a co-owner of Hog Island, said that two weeks ago a member of his seven-person farm crew tested positive, and that the entire crew remains quarantined while they await their results. In the meantime, he and other management positions were helping out on the farm. 

Ken Dunaj, the owner of Building Supply, said that one of his 12 employees tested positive for Covid-19 after going home with a scratchy throat on July 1. Seven other employees are quarantined and awaiting test results. 

“The only way we can survive this as a community is to improve testing,” Mr. Dunaj said yesterday. “I’m doing everything I can to protect everyone, but this is the seventh day I’m waiting for test results for employees: Our hands are completely tied from a business standpoint.”

Nevertheless, keeping people at home in the interim was a clear choice, Mr. Dunaj said, though he is short-handed. 

“The community is so tight-knit as far as the people that live and work here,” he said. “When you have this tight connectivity, you not only have a responsibility to your own store and own employees, but a much broader responsibility.” 

There are some efforts at the county to assist those who are unable to work. 

On Tuesday, the Marin Community Foundation allocated $250,000 and the county contributed $500,000 for disaster relief payments to individuals who have tested positive for Covid-19 or have a high probability of being positive. Through collaboration with the Multicultural Center of Marin, people who earn less than 300 percent of the federal poverty line and worked in the last month will get a check of $1,000 or, if they have a family, $1,500.

Marin has distributed $110,000 as part of the same effort. The new batch of funds is intended to last for three months.