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New River Health District urges workplaces to maintain best practices with COVID-19

Published: Oct. 20, 2020 at 6:12 AM EDT
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MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Va. (WDBJ) - In southwest Virginia, there are 71 active workplace COVID-19 outbreaks, according to Dr. Noelle Bissell, director of the New River Health District. However, the New River Valley seems to be faring much better than the rest of the region and the health district hopes to keep it that way by reminding employers and employees to maintain good COVID-19 habits.

The term outbreak might sound like a devastating word, especially in a world plagued by the coronavirus. Jason Deese, an epidemiologist with the New River Health District, said it’s not a word to be feared.

“The general definition for an outbreak is a number of cases above what’s expected for a given geographical area," he explained.

Deese added a more specific definition is ‘two or more cases that are linked by a common exposure.’ This means there could be two linked cases or there could be a hundred linked cases, it just depends on the situation.

“So if you have two coworkers [who] show up to a workplace and they both have COVID, then that could technically be called an outbreak. But is it above what’s expected? Not necessarily," Deese said.

It’s important not to panic when you hear the term ‘outbreak.’

“Every outbreak we declare isn’t necessarily an explosion of cases caused by that workplace," Deese said.

Just because more than one person in a workplace has COVID does not always mean they contracted or spread COVID at work.

“Often times the workplace does everything perfectly," Deese said. "They’ve got it all set up. They’ve got screening in place. They’ve got the employees wearing masks. They’ve got them doing routine hand washing and all that type of stuff.”

However, businesses are still common places for multiple cases to pop up.

“Regardless of whether transmission is actually occurring in that workplace," he explained.

Life happens outside the office. Coworkers might carpool to work, hang out after work or even take breaks together during work. All this increases the risk of an outbreak in a business, so taking precautions to minimize that risk even as you continue to do and enjoy life with your friends is key.

“That would be maintaining that social distance; masking when you’re with people who aren’t in your own family," Deese said. "If you’re carpooling with different families then sometimes riding with the windows down when the weather is appropriate, that would minimize your risk as well.”

To protect businesses and employees who are likely not to blame for an outbreak, the Virginia Department of Health does not announce specific locations where outbreaks have occurred.

“There’s just such a stigma on COVID-19 right now that we want to avoid giving information that would reveal a person’s identity," Deese said.

The best thing to do is let the contact tracers and investigators do their jobs. If you don’t get a call from them about possible exposure, chances are you are in clear of COVID for now.

“To release names of specific places where outbreaks are occurring requires the health commissioner’s permission,” Deese said.

If you do hear of cases at a business or worry you may have crossed paths with an employee who worked there, there are a couple things you can do.

“Step one, remain calm. Step two, remain rational," Deese urged.

Step three, call the New River Valley COVID hotline for advice and to possibly set up a testing appointment.

“We’re confident in our case investigation and tracing program," he said. "If you don’t get a phone and you work at this place then you probably were not exposed based on the interview we had with the case patient.”

Deese said if you work at a business or have seen a business that you worry is not adhering to the COVID guidelines, the best way to report that is through the Department of Labor’s website.

According to the latest numbers as of Oct. 19, there have now been just over 4,000 cases of COVID-19, 72 hospitalizations and 28 deaths in the New River Valley.

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